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In this part of our blog series on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, we look at Goal 15 – Life on Land – and how to make the most of our sustainability efforts.

Life on Land

The UN’s fifteenth Sustainable Development concerns Life on Land, and aims to “protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”  This is an extremely broad remit, so today we’re going to focus on a promising practice that lies at the intersection of two of this goal’s big issues – carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

Carbon sequestration – the long term storage of carbon in plants and rocks – is a massive deal in today’s world, as deforestation continues to threaten many of the earth’s major carbon sinks and we fight to bring emissions under control. It’s not just an international issue, either – the United Kingdom has pledged to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, and meeting this target will require drastic action.

Biodiversity – the variety of plant or animal life in one habitat – threatens the planet in a different way. Around 56% of plant and animal species in the UK are in decline, and 15% are threatened with extinction; the ecosystems are struggling, and even here habitats are being slowly eroded. Northern European countries, like Norway, have reduced emissions and preserved their stunning natural landscapes, keeping fjords and oceans clean of litter with the help of local rubbish services.

A Forest Fix

A common response to the issue of carbon emissions is widespread tree-planting, which aims to replace the trees lost to deforestation and seed new long-term carbon sinks in new or rejuvenated forest areas. For many business and organisation, direct tree planting, or sponsoring trees, is an easy and effective way to counter their carbon footprint.

Currently tree cover accounts for 10% of the total land in England, and raising this percentage – even by a small amount – will help the country to offset and sequester our carbon emissions. (For context here, just over 50% of the total land in the country is used for livestock and growing grass.) The UK, however, is significantly off-target for tree planting. Of the Government’s 5,000 hectare target between March 2019 and March 2019, only 1,420 hectares were planted, and the total tree cover remains unchanged.

There is even evidence, from studies conducted in Canada and China, that some kinds of tree planting can disturb ecosystems. Afforestation, the large-scale planting of one species of tree where this species was not found before, may disrupt habitats, worsen wildfires and deplete groundwater levels. So, while tree planting may be great for carbon sequestering, if done without proper care and attention then it may have unintended knock on effects on the ecosystem, damaging the world’s existing habitats.

A Wilder Britain

So if tree planting isn’t perfect, then what should we be doing? Rewilding advocates say they have the answer. Rewilding, a term coined in 1990 by conservationist David Foreman, means restoring land to its natural, uncultivated state, and there is a growing body of research to support the movement.

Alongside planting trees and developing new forests, rewilding help to restore other kinds of land – such as marshes, peat bogs, and wetland – to their pre-cultivated state. By restoring land in this way, rewilding helps to reintroduce endangered or struggling wildlife back into the ecosystem. Rewilded land, furthermore, also carries the same – or even better – carbon sequestration benefits as new-planted trees.

Supported by Science

This might sound a bit on the hippy side, but it is also supported by hard science. The Wallasea Nature Reserve, managed by the RSPB, is the largest rewilded coastal wetland in Europe, and has provided the local ecosystems with a variety of measurable and demonstrable benefits. Birds that have not been seen in the areas for years are now common throughout Wallasea, while the restored mudflats and salt marshes help to reduce the risk of flooding in the area by absorbing rain and floodwater.

Rejuvenated marshlands and peat bogs carry further benefits through the animal kingdom: encouraging certain animals back into the ecosystem, as well as helping biodiversity, can also have environmental benefits. Beavers, for example, are in decline, but they build canals and dams that act as giant water sponges, reducing the impact of floods and preserving water supplies in dry months. Bringing beavers back into these ecosystems does a lot to protect the surrounding land.

From an emissions standpoint, wetlands are powerhouses, burying carbon dioxide in thick, gloopy mud. Coastal wetlands like Wallasea are capable of trapping carbon up to 40 times faster per hectare than tropical rainforest, making the development of these areas a much more effective rapid solution to the carbon problem than planting trees.

Restoring the Earth

Here at Bywaters, we do sponsor and work with tree planting schemes to offset the emissions of our clients and our own operations, but we choose our partners carefully. We work only with organisations  that plant native trees and collaborate with local communities to help these developing forests reach maturity. This ensures that the positive effects of these initiatives are maximised and the downsides of reforestation are avoided.

You can even get involved at home or in your business, simply by allowing the green spaces around you to revert to their natural state. We’ll leave you today on the words of Chris Sandom, an adviser to Rewilding Britain and co-founder of consultancy Wild Business: “Engaging […] on a local scale, whether it is your back garden or your office site, is important. For example, not mowing the lawn on 10 or 15 per cent of your land can let wild flowers establish and help get the bees and pollinators back.”

Sometimes it’s as easy as letting nature be nature.

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