Wilder carbon: scaling up the UK's natural climate solutions

How can the UK plan, fund and deliver more nature-based solutions with integrity to support our wildlife and absorb carbon? Evan Bowen-Jones reports

The world is finally waking up to our need to take urgent climate action to avoid destabilising our planet, after a summer when temperatures reached 40°C in the UK and catastrophic floods brought devastation across Pakistan.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recognises how biodiversity loss and climate change are linked and urges us to tackle both simultaneously. Climate change exacerbates habitat loss and vice versa.

Scientists have also established that restoring habitat globally can counter climate change, absorbing about 30 per cent of manmade emissions and boosting biodiversity. One study suggests that restoring 15 per cent of priority ecosystems would “avoid” 60 per cent of forecast extinctions and sequester 299 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Scientists have defined natural climate solutions (NCS) as “conservation, restoration and/or improved land management actions that increase carbon storage and/or avoid greenhouse gas emissions in or from forests, wetlands, grasslands and agricultural land”.

NCS, delivered quickly and at scale while cutting emissions, could halt catastrophic ecological tipping points and make us more resilient to current climate change, providing mitigation and adaptation benefits.

But unless we act quickly, we will struggle to fix and prevent ecosystems collapsing – an even greater threat than climate change.

Restoration needs financing. Our societies still undervalue nature, despite UK Treasury-led reports like the Dasgupta Review. The Green Finance Institute (GFI) estimates a UK funding gap for nature restoration of £56 billion over the next decade.

Brought to market in the right way, NCS could close this gap. Government acknowledged this in its 2021 autumn budget, pledging to raise £500 million in private finance to “support nature’s recovery” annually by 2027 in England, rising to more than £1 billion by 2030.

UK carbon finance

To date, the UK has launched only limited NCS schemes, over limited geographies, that focus on single habitats – peat restoration of peat, planting trees for climate mitigation – enabled by singular carbon accounting methodologies. Having a limited focus on habitat creates a barrier to scaling up investment to support restoration.

Meanwhile tree planting is mostly commercial forestry of non-native species that offer limited biodiversity benefits, exacerbate flood risk and lock up carbon only short-term. Buyers of such schemes also have not had to cut their own emissions. Little wonder critics dismiss buying carbon credits for corporate offsetting as greenwash.

The UK is the world’s 189th most nature-depleted nation. We urgently need multi-habitat ecological restoration. We need to finance genuine, high-quality NCS using mechanisms that pull numerous smaller projects in different carbon-rich habitats under one umbrella, to deliver our national climate and biodiversity targets.

Wilder Carbon has modelled what is possible based on conservative scenarios. If we implement large-scale native habitat restoration within the decade – in tandem with the emissions-reductions actions that the Climate Change Committee’s sixth carbon budget recommends – the UK could reach net zero faster.

Ecological restoration of marginal lands could lock up 676 million tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent by 2050 – that’s about 17 years of UK aviation emissions – and generate at least £30 billion. We would market these as voluntary offsets, with safeguards to ensure these deliver meaningful climate action to deliver our Paris Agreement promises.

Doing NCS right

Done right, UK NCS offers significant benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation. If we focus on restoring native habitats it supports biodiversity recovery. Marketing offsets to companies acting to cut their emissions opens ethical ways to finance this.

It can create climate-resilient, biodiverse landscapes that help all of us to adapt to changing, more extreme weather. We will still need to change how we travel, produce food and many other personal choices.

We are waiting for technologies such as direct air capture to become cheaper and scalable. NCS offers an immediate solution to address urgent challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, sustaining nature and people together.

Concerned UK businesses want to cut their carbon emissions and invest in quality NCS. The conservation sector also sees it needs much greater ambition – some say conservation biology must become survival ecology. High-integrity NCS can deliver all these ambitions.

Ethical investors, conservation organisations, the public and politicians need NCS to mobilise finance to restore nature to deliver real climate and societal benefits.

NCS schemes fall short if they focus only on particular project or portfolio performance, if they only measure carbon, or market themselves on carbon forecasting that does not link how quickly the world is changing to supporting biodiverse systems and more resilient, solutions.

If we don’t match high-quality projects to buyers that demonstrably cut their carbon emissions using true nature-based solutions we will not harness NCS’ potential to keep 1.5°C alive.

Wilder Carbon Standards

This is where the Wilder Carbon Standards (WCS) come in. WCS is designed to restore all UK carbon-rich terrestrial habitats in the most effective, climate-resilient way – maximising ecological complexity. WCS uses the best available data – conservatively – to direct how we act now. It is signed off by a panel of independent experts, who are WCS guardians.

WCS aims to learn as we go, monitoring to improve data. It offers the assurance that investors, buyers and the public need, that WCS-certified projects are done well and offer “high integrity”.

WCS will only certify projects that offer measurable carbon and biodiversity benefits. They fill the gap in the market for a UK nature-based carbon standard. Wilder Carbon will sell units and credits only to “approved buyers” that can prove they use science-based methods to cut their emissions.

A bespoke registry will record the carbon units it issues and list only conservation-grade “removal” units. This will prevent speculative trading from companies that fail to take meaningful climate action. This positions the Wilder Carbon as a benchmark for NCS projects. It:

  • Addresses the nature and climate crises together
  • Provides a single assurance mechanism for restoring multiple native habitats
  • Works at multiple scales, from local authority landholdings to farms, rewilding projects and protected areas
  • Leverages green finance in a defensible not-for-profit manner that delivers real carbon reductions and removals.

Scaling up

Scaling up will take supportive policy frameworks, more financing and capacity. Creating a system to manage a pipeline of multiple, high-integrity NCS projects is expensive and time consuming. Flexible finance will be critical until costs fall and until voluntary carbon prices start to rise.

Established charity links and some initial government funding through the Natural Environment Investment-Readiness Fund (NEIRF) have enabled Wilder Carbon to bring projects to market – but not to scale the system up to where it needs to be.

Established schemes and Wilder Carbon urgently need capacity – from validation to monitoring and evaluation to delivery on the ground. It takes time to grow a skills base. This is a fledgling industry. It needs strategic investor backing to attract talent.

And we need national and local decisionmakers – public and private – to adopt NCS as a no-regrets solution. Political adoption would tackle other barriers – including tax incentives that discourage landowners from designating “unproductive” land not suited to sustainable food production.

It would position NCS as a significant national strategic endeavour, giving restoration of nature the same or greater, status as, say, national infrastructure projects.

This is what we need now.

This is a complex riddle to crack but we have to crack it – quickly. Wilder Carbon can get things going. We don’t have time to wait. Perfect cannot be the enemy of the good.

Our climate is changing now: if we delay, we forfeit our ability to deploy NCS to defend ourselves. We must hard-wire Wilder Carbon and high-integrity UK-based natural climate solutions into national climate mitigation and adaptation strategies right away.

Evan Bowen-Jones is acting managing director of Wilder Carbon and chief executive of Kent Wildlife Trust, Twitter @EcoLlogik

Find out more: www.wildercarbon.co

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