As one of the most nature-depleted nations in the world, the UK is suffering from egregious self-harm. Nature should not be seen simply as a pleasant amenity, but as a vital part of ‘us’. Humanity is not separate but embedded and a part of nature. Not only does connecting with nature produce tangible benefits to both physical and mental health and cognitive ability, but—as set out in Zero Hour’s new Creating a Nature-Rich UK report—an emphasis on the protection and restoration of nature has the potential to mitigate climate change, protect us from the results of climate change, allow the economy to flourish and ensure food and water security.
Opponents to nature restoration and climate change mitigation are usually armed with arguments about the cost of such schemes. However, the Creating a Nature-Rich UK report highlights how nature-based solutions to climate change are much cheaper and more reliable than engineered solutions. For instance, the cost per tonne of carbon dioxide removed by agroforestry ranges from just £9-£20, compared to a range of £100-£600 for engineered solutions like Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Capture with Carbon Storage (DACCS). Agroforestry is one example amongst a multitude of nature-based solutions but even by itself, it has the potential to remove more carbon than both BECCS and DACCS (even if unreliable claims that they remove residual emissions of 58 million tonnes of CO2 per year are to be believed).
Nature-based solutions should not be understood as a one-way economic cost, but should be treated with a ‘spend money to make money’ mentality. Restoring peatlands, for example, would deliver benefits of £109 billion—outweighing the investment by 5 to 10 times (according to the Office for National Statistics). With the current anxiety around unemployment levels, jobs created through nature restoration is an obvious remedy that must be utilised. Hedgerow restoration has the potential to create 25,000 jobs, yielding £4 for every £1 invested. A nature-rich UK could create thousands of jobs at all skill levels, expand industries like ecotourism, and allow the UK to become a world leader in the integrated management of nature-based solutions for flooding and drought, as well as technologies such as the measuring of natural carbon capture.
Nature should not be seen simply as a pleasant amenity, but as a vital part of ‘us’.
The social and economic cost of allowing ourselves to become further deprived of our nature would be astronomical. At the time of writing, Devon and Somerset are being devastated by floods. The price of restoring natural defences to this, such as shelterbelts of trees which can rapidly reduce water flows by 40%, are minuscule in comparison to the £1.3 billion annual cost of floods (Forest Research estimates that the economic value of flood protection from woodlands and trees is £25.1 billion).
With UK summers continually outstripping the previous year as the hottest on record, natural-based solutions can alleviate pressure on the already-struggling NHS by mitigating heat-related threats to public health, which caused 2,227 excess deaths during just one extreme heat event from 10th to 25th July 2022. Expanding tree cover for cooling, for instance, can reduce heat deaths by a third.
Opponents may argue that the land required to realise the benefits of a nature-rich UK would harm food production. The opposite is, in fact, true—a nature-rich UK presents a much-needed opportunity to fix our underperforming food system. The UK is the third largest net importer of food, which is not a title to be proud of, especially during a cost of living crisis. By transitioning to a more sustainable food system we can become more self-sufficient, and produce healthier and more fresh produce (slashing the cost of dietary diseases to the NHS), whilst freeing up millions of hectares for nature. A diverse network of mixed, sustainable farms would be much more resilient, provide mitigation and protection from climate change, reduce the huge threats to food and water security and create hundreds of thousands more jobs through vibrant local food economies.
Reports such as Creating a Nature-Rich UK evidence the chances we have to not just survive the current environmental changes, but to prosper and thrive. Ignoring the science would be a tragedy and a mistake we cannot afford to make.