In this special net zero edition of Sphere we look at some of the work we have been doing both in the UK and internationally to help assess and understand the effects of climate change and bring our world back into balance. The journey to net zero is fraught with difficulty and as we approach the COP 26 climate change conference taking place in Glasgow in November the message is clearer than ever. Not only do we have to achieve the balance that the net zero narrative describes but we also have to seek ways and means to reduce the carbon already in our atmosphere. In other words net zero is just the start and getting there is going to take a huge effort from all of us, governments, agencies, environmental groups and us as individuals.
Why Net Zero?
According to Bill Gates in his 2020 book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’ the world is currently emitting 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. This startling figure has built up year-on-year as post-industrial human activity has increased. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily reduced emissions by 5% due to the sudden and unprecedented drop in human activity, emissions are on the rise again. COVID-19 will be a tiny blip on the graph. As greenhouse gas emissions rise so too does the temperature; at least 1 degree to date and predicted to be between 1.5 and 3 degrees by the middle of the century. Temperature rise is proven to cause climate change, the effects of which are widely debated but are deemed to be potentially catastrophic, so much so that a growing number of organisations and governments have declared there to be a climate emergency.
The term ‘net zero’ means achieving a balance between the carbon emitted into the atmosphere, and the carbon removed from it. Net zero has now become a mantra for governments signalling their intention to reach balance, in most cases, by 2050 and, in China’s case, by 2060. The current thinking is that if we achieve balance then we limit temperature rise and therefore more significant climate change together with all the negative consequences that are associated with it. Sadly, as we are seeing in North America, and many other parts of the world, rapid climate change is already underway. Net zero is just the start. The world needs to figure out how it can achieve balance and then start to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Nature-based solutions are key to the way forward not only to mitigate the effects of climate change but also to bring the world back into balance.
Our Own Carbon Footprint
Back in 2019 Environment Systems, driven by our staff-owned ethics policy and a commitment to actively support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it was agreed to investigate options for offsetting the company’s carbon emissions.
The Company has had its own BS 8555 accredited Environmental Management System for several years and has made significant strides to reduce waste and cut down energy and water use. In other words, we already had a good handle on our environmental impact and carbon footprint.
Our investigations led us to the World Land Trust (WLT). We worked with them to see what was required to achieve Carbon Balanced status. World Land Trust – Carbon Balanced offset schemes enable individuals and companies to financially contribute to environmental projects which protect threatened forests and restore forest habitats; these types of projects let companies make reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere equivalent to their carbon emissions.
WLT’s evidence-based Carbon Balanced programme focuses on nature-based solutions, such as avoiding deforestation, woodland rehabilitation, assisted natural regeneration and tree planting. As an environmental consultancy, the additional biodiversity benefits associated with these measures really appealed to us. We also felt that WLT’s transparent and flexible project design very much aligned with the company’s ethos of being ready to adapt in line with advances in science. WLT were able to use the figures from our annual BS 8555 audit to calculate our carbon footprint with the resulting financial contribution enabling us to complete the process. We are now proud to be a certified Carbon Balanced company through WLT.
Informing Afforestation Policy
To help mitigate the impacts of climate change and achieve benefits in other areas such as reduced flood risk, the Welsh Government (WG) has committed to an ambitious target to significantly increase woodland expansion by 2000 ha per year. To optimise the outputs of afforestation across Wales, and to demonstrate how nature-based solutions can work in practice, a holistic understanding of the multiple benefits provided by different types of woodland is required. Putting the right tree in the right place at the right sort of planting density could have great benefits not just in terms of ecosystem services such as carbon capture, flood mitigation and water quality but also for key species that use different parts of the woodland ecosystem.This is the subject of a project being carried out with the RSPB. Environment Systems has been commissioned to investigate a number of different scenarios to benefit both ecosystem services and species. In this project, the focus has been on black grouse (Tetrao tetrix), which is a threatened species with important but fragmented populations in areas of north Wales. A moorland fringe species, black grouse inhabit areas containing a mosaic of wetland, heath, grassland, and woodland edge habitat. The thinking is that expanding the wooded areas in key places would increase the resilience of existing populations by connecting areas of fragmented habitat and connecting disparate populations. Planting in these areas is also likely to lead to an increase in water quality and a reduction in water flow peaks which can help flood alleviation. There are therefore good reasons to consider tree planting in specific areas to achieve these multiple benefits.
In this WG funded project RSPB are carrying out research into the diversity of bird species associated with different woodland types, whilst Environment Systems are carrying out carbon storage and sequestration analyses, surface water regulation modelling, and tree-planting opportunity modelling. There is a rich source of up-to-date data available, which makes the modelling work more compelling. We are building on previous work on ‘GIS for Area Statements’ for Natural Resources Wales (NRW), and a series of datasets modelling biophysical suitability for tree planting, created for WG under the Capability, Suitability and Climate Programme. The analyses combine these datasets to identify areas where the soil, topography and climate are suitable for growing trees, but also considers real world constraints, excluding areas where it would not be possible or desirable to plant trees (areas of deep peat, Scheduled Ancient Monuments etc), and areas where tree planting may be possible but additional factors must be considered (‘sensitivities’ e.g., acid sensitive catchments, common land etc).
Combining and building on the data from the NRW and Welsh Government projects allows us to consider biophysical, political and sociological influences on decision-making, and modify the decision rules to meet the specific habitat requirements of a priority species. In addition to the work on black grouse, the project is modelling tree-planting opportunity space in three wider catchments (Towy Valley, Elan Valley and the Dee), where the relative carbon and water regulation benefits derived from different afforestation strategies (‘commercial’ vs ‘environmental’) will be analysed.
The output will be used to demonstrate how species and the biodiversity of an area can and should be considered alongside other ecosystem services and planting considerations to give a truly holistic approach.
From Research to Action
In the Caribbean, the increasing frequency and severity of storms due to climate change has greatly impacted coastal areas. The 2017 hurricane season in particular saw massive destruction of coastal infrastructure and habitats. There is now wide recognition of the importance of natural coastlines, with healthy habitats including mangrove and coral reefs. These provide a frontline defence to protect local communities against the effects of storm surge, wind and wave action. The mangroves that grow in or near the water’s edge provide multiple benefits to nature and human communities. They provide habitat and nursery areas for fish (supporting 80% of the global fish catch) and also act as significant carbon sinks as well as a buffer against storms, wind and waves.
Samuel Pike, one of our Remote Sensing consultants, and Katie Medcalf, our Environment Director, worked with Louise Soanes (Roehampton University) and colleagues in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) to produce a research paper recently published in the Journal of Ocean and Coastal Management. The research used remote sensing to identify mangrove extents before the 2017 hurricane and the ongoing recovery. The research showed all sites had some form of recovery from the hurricane, but none had recovered to pre-hurricane Irma levels by 2019. In addition, ground surveys in 2020 identified a high presence of the fast-growing seaside mahoe, an invasive tree which does not have the coastal protection benefit of mangroves. The paper also presents how scientific rules were used together with our SENCE tool to model storm surge vulnerability and to identify those coastal regions at most risk, from future hurricane seasons and areas best for mitigation. This work has provided robust evidence for mangrove restoration and provides an important tool for further studies in the wider Caribbean region to help inform coastal restoration and resilience building activities.
In the Autumn 2020 issue of Sphere, we reported on work we had carried out in Anguilla funded under the UK Government’s Darwin initiative. In our part of the project, we took 100 years of hurricane data detailing their direction, frequency and strength and then used SENCE and the key factors that influence storm surge to provide maps. These show areas at risk from storm surge, where there are opportunities to enhance, restore and recreate natural defences such as planting mangrove and restoring dunes and how these measures will impact on the vulnerability of communities.
Using the results of this work the Government of Anguilla identified seven priority coastal sites for habitat restoration, including beaches, dunes, and wetlands. Priority action plans for each site have been developed, outlining potential habitat restoration measures. Together with hundreds of community members, project partners have been working to implement the action plans by collecting and germinating seeds, air-layering woody coastal vegetation and planting over 1,000 buttonwood, seagrape, red, black and white mangrove seedlings in some of Anguilla’s most vulnerable and storm-affected coastal areas. Over seven acres of coastal habitat have been restored in the last few months and this is just the start.
This is a great example of our work moving from research to policy and action. With coastal wetlands being the richest source of carbon in the Caribbean, these cost-effective nature-based solutions will help tackle the negative effects of climate change and biodiversity.
On the back of this work, we will be leading a significant new project in the Turks & Caicos Islands funded under the Darwin initiative. The project will provide evidence of the dynamic resilience of Caicos Islands’ wetlands, and how they support biodiversity, coastal protection, and natural capital. It will evaluate historic change, show how future climate could impact the wetlands, and provide evidence to review the Ramsar Nature Reserve which covers the majority of the southern wetlands of North and Middle Caicos, and a small region on East Caicos. It will develop a monitoring framework and dashboard to view project and ongoing monitoring data, build technical and scientific capacity in local staff, in order to help sustain wetland management in the long term.
Sequestering Carbon Through Tree Planting
Following the declaration of a Climate Emergency by Welsh Government in April 2019 and committing to achieve a carbon neutral public sector by 2030, Bridgend County Borough Council (BCBC) have started to develop a Climate Emergency Response Programme which will work to mitigate the impacts of climate change. BCBC has acknowledged the crucial role they can play through the management of its own assets. One of the key ways to sequester carbon (removing it from the atmosphere and helping to slow climate change) is to plant trees. Environment Systems has been involved in a project that considers the land in BCBC ownership and its management in terms of its suitability for tree planting. In addition, we have looked at the importance of biodiversity which underpins the environment and ultimately our health, wealth and wellbeing as outlined in the Environment Act Wales 2016 and in the recent Dasgupta Review (Dasgupta, 2021). BCBC recognises that increasing the coverage of native tree species will help safeguard biodiversity and add to environmental resilience.
Tree planting schemes must ensure that the right species are planted in the right places and also deliver on a number of the key benefits which take into account the wider role of trees in the green infrastructure such as:
- Quantifying the possible carbon stored in BCBC land and how much could be sequestered
- Showing where planting community woodlands will help reconnect local people to their environment and ensure their health and wellbeing
- Supporting and enhancing biodiversity
- Slowing surface water run-off to help prevent flooding
- Helping to prevent pollution from the land reaching watercourses
- Enhancing landscape quality
- Enhancing air quality
- Reducing noise pollution
When the government and businesses start to put a price on carbon pollution as a means of bringing down emissions and driving investment into cleaner options things start to get interesting. Clearly bringing about change will be reliant on carbon pricing schemes and systems to administer and monitor them. If the trees establish well in the areas outlined in this project, they will not only sequester carbon, but aid biodiversity and provide many other benefits to the communities involved.
Environment Systems co-founder and Director Steve Keyworth was recently invited to join the Space Wales Leadership Group (SWLG) to provide a strategic view on commercial Earth observation opportunities for Wales. Space Wales is the result of the UK Space Agency funded cluster development project. SWLG has mapped out the sector in Wales, identified the key opportunities and outlined key recommendations and actions to be taken to shape a new space strategy for Wales. These are outlined in a recently published report: ‘Wales – A Sustainable Space Nation.’