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It has been the case for some time now that environmental challenges have been seen primarily through the lens of carbon and climate change, whether this be in political discourse, media coverage, or public consciousness. This is understandable, given the terrifying implications of rapid global heating, and the screaming urgency of taking action to avoid the worst of what lies ahead.

However, it is far from the only dimension of an ecological emergency pressing upon us. In parallel with the soaring build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there is a planet-scale unravelling of the web of life, manifesting in precipitous species loss and decline, degradation of ecosystems, and the disruption of natural processes that sustain the Earth’s biosphere.

The scale, scope and immediacy of the changes taking place are underlined by a wide range of expert reviews, and increasingly reflected in official targets, policy, and action which arose from COP26. In addition to a deeper understanding of the carbon and ecological challenges, there is the growing realisation as to how fundamentally inter-connected they are, both in their origin and the solutions needed to resolve them. It will be impossible to stabilise global temperature increase to 1.5 to 2 °C without taking action to restore the natural world, just as restoring nature cannot realistically happen in a rapidly-heating planet. In other words, the world must aim for low carbon and high nature at the same time, as part of a combined plan of action.

All countries must embrace this reality. At Natural England, climate change has become even more central to our work for nature recovery. There are three reasons for this: nature can catch and hold a lot of carbon; healthy ecosystems can help us adapt to inevitable climate changes; and if we are to leave nature in a better state for the future it must be resilient to climate change. Blending these priorities into our work is vital in order to get climate change right.

Some clear routes to effective action are already being pursued. One is in relation to peatlands: our largest natural carbon stores, locking away over 580 million tonnes of carbon. We are working with Defra and partners on the ground to restore thousands of hectares of peatland habitats, notably blanket bogs and raised mires. This will not only have multiple carbon benefits, but also: help restore wildlife’s habitats; in some cases help reduce flood risk; and at the same time rendering such landscapes more resilient to climate change impacts, for example through being wetter, thereby reducing fire risk.

Trees are also vital for our national effort to achieve net zero emissions and for achieving nature recovery goals. By working with partners in the Forestry Commission, we are seeking joinedup outcomes for our ambitious national woodland expansion targets, whereby increasing tree cover not only helps to achieve low carbon goals, but also supports wildlife and the landscape. By being careful to plant the right trees in the right place, and for the right reason, we can also reduce flood risk, protect rivers from pollution and create wonderful places for people to enjoy outdoor recreation.

This work on trees and peat will help advance Natural England’s mission to create a Nature Recovery Network. This priority, set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, provides the vehicle to meet the fundamental need outlined by Sir John Lawton in his 2010 review Making Space for Nature.

In parallel with the soaring build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, there is a planet-scale unravelling of the web of life

He concluded that in order to restore nature and render it resilient to climate change, it would be necessary to have more nature-rich places that are bigger, of better quality and connected to one another. The work we and others are doing with trees and peat complements, the new tools of Environmental Land Management schemes, and ‘biodiversity net gain’, as well as the existing network of protected areas, including National Parks, AONBs, and National Nature Reserves, will help deliver a concerted boost for nature recovery far beyond anything that could be achieved by one of these tools alone.

The challenge will be to integrate these and other tools effectively. Fortunately, we have opportunities to do this, not least via the new Local Nature Recovery Strategies mandated by the Environment Act 2021.

Although complex, it is certainly possible as long as we set out to integrate the different budgets, policies and targets that we have and to go low carbon and high nature at the same time, achieving multiple benefits for society. Together with the other UK nature recovery agencies, Natural England has set out how we can succeed in detail in our Nature Positive 2030 report.

The past few years have seen intense discussion and activity to shape targets, laws, and policies. The coming few years must be all about delivery, before the environmental emergency becomes an environmental disaster.

Tony Juniper CBE is the Chair of Natural England. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Favourable climate? Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Pixabay]