Nature: The habitats on the front line of the climate fight

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Billions of dollars to restore the natural world have been promised during the first week of Cop26, with Alok Sharma describing it as humanity’s “first line of defence” against the climate crisis.

Day six of the climate summit was all about championing nature as the first phase of the negotiations are finalised.

While politicians and diplomats battle to come up with a viable plan to limit global warming to 1.5C, here is a look at the habitats they could be the key to saving us from disaster.

– Forests

An agreement on forests was one of the early breakthroughs of the summit, with 110 countries – including Brazil – signing a declaration to halt and reverse deforestation by 2030.

Trees remove carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis – locking it in their trucks, leaf systems and also in the soil – and the UK is aiming to boast tree cover from 10.1% to 12% by 2050.

The UK Government is planning to boost tree cover to 12% by 2050 (Jacob King/PA)

They boost biodiversity and reduce flood risk by intercepting rainfall in their canopies and pulling into the earth through their roots, as well as breaking up flows of heavy rainfall off already saturated ground.

– Peatland

Peatland was long one of the unsung heroes of the climate crisis, and for centuries were drained for agriculture or dug up for fuel.

But research has found that despite covering only 3% of the Earth’s landmass, they store almost twice as much carbon as forests – and the need to save them is rocketing up the climate agenda.

Peat farming
Peatland is a hugely effective carbon sink (Emily Beament/PA)

The wet marshy conditions of peatland locks in carbon from dead plant life, that would be released into the atmosphere through the process of decomposition or wildfire in dryer habitats.

But peatland in poor condition can become a major source of greenhouse gasses, research by Bangor University found the 2.6 million hectares of degraded peat in the UK emit 23 million tonnes of carbon a year – or 5% of UK emissions.

– Sustainable Agriculture

Modern agriculture can have a hugely detrimental impact on soil and water quality through use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.

Farmers are being encouraged to restore hedgerows, plant trees and leave space for wildflowers on their land to boost biodiversity, reduce pollutants leeching into waterways and reduce flood risk.

Spanish sparrow in Hampshire
Hedgerows trap carbon and provide a vital habitat for wildlife (Chris Ison/PA)

They are also being urged to plant cover crops – crops aimed at improving soil health and reducing erosion – between harvests of cash crops to help the Earth lock in carbon more effectively.

– Seagrass

Underwater forests of seagrass draw down huge volumes of carbon dioxide, locking it into the seabed, while simultaneously stabilising sediment, filtering water and providing a vital nursery for young fish.

Seagrass accounts for an estimated 15% of the ocean’s carbon storage capacity, according to the Wildlife Trust, but huge swathes have been lost to dredging, trawler fishing and pollution.

Experts estimate the UK has lost 44% of its seagrasses since the 1930s and there are now several programmes attempting to painstakingly replant this habitat around our coastline.

– Saltmarsh

Saltmarshes not only store carbon, they are also provide mitigation against extreme weather by acting as a huge flood defence.

Like peatland, dead saltmarsh plant life does not decompose and instead becomes buried beneath layers of sediment, effectively trapping the carbon in the mud.

Located along low lying coastline, they also act as a buffer against tidal surges, reducing the risk of flooding and damage from heavy storms and tidal waves.

In the other direction, saltmarshes act as a sponge to filter out herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers from agricultural runoff, reducing the volumes of pollution reaching the ocean.

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