Getting to net zero by 2045: capturing nature’s true potential for tackling climate change

14 May 2019

We are in the midst of a climate emergency. Incontrovertible evidence presented by the IPCC published last October laid out the dramatic consequences of failing to contain global warming to a 1.5 C increase above pre-industrial levels. In response, governments in the UK asked our own climate science expert body, the UK Committee on Climate Change, to consider how the UK can contribute to stopping global warming.

In Scotland, this came at a particularly important time as a new Scottish Climate Change Bill was going through Scottish Parliament which sought to align Scottish climate ambitions with the Paris Agreement and the commitment to limit temperature rise to 1.5 C.

On the 2nd of May, the Committee on Climate Change published its much awaited report. It recommended that Scotland can reach a net zero target for greenhouse gases by 2045 – ahead of the UK as a whole which could meet the same target by 2050. The report was published a week after Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland declared a ‘climate emergency’.

The Scottish Government’s response was swift: Environment Secretary Roseanna Cunningham committed to legislating for a net zero target by 2045 in the new Scottish Climate Change Bill.

This is incredible news and it has been welcomed by environmental charities, young campaigners, progressive businesses and citizens. Members of Scottish Environment LINK warmly welcomed the Scottish Government’s response; setting a net zero target by 2045 was one of the network’s key priorities.

A Roadmap to net zero emissions in Scotland

The next critical step is agreeing on the action that Scotland needs to take to achieve net zero. Again, the Committee on Climate Change offers some very important recommendations.

It highlights that Scotland has proportionately greater potential for emissions removal than the UK overall. In other words, Scotland’s nature and geography make it ideal for rolling out nature-based solutions which actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and lock it away in soils and vegetation, a process known as carbon sequestration.

LINK members have long argued that nature is one of our greatest allies in tackling climate change. Throughout the deliberations around the provisions of the new Scottish Climate Bill, LINK members have maintained that nature is part of the solution:
1) We need ambitious emission reduction targets to protect our own wellbeing but also wildlife.
2) We need healthy ecosystems to ensure we enhance nature’s capacity to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

Scotland’s nature already stores large amounts of carbon:
• 50 megatonnes of carbon is locked in Scotland’s vegetation.
• Scotland’s soils contain more than 3,000 megatonnes of carbon; 53% of that is held in our peatlands.
• Agricultural soils have the potential to hold an estimated 115 megatonnes of it, equivalent to 22% of total carbon dioxide emissions from Scotland’s energy sector.
• Scotland’s seas store more than 1,700 megatonnes of inorganic carbon.

The Committee on Climate Change highlights Scotland’s potential to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions through afforestation and peatland restoration. On peatlands alone, the Committee notes that ‘there is potential to more than double the area of restored peatland from 0.6 million hectares today to over 1.4 million hectares by 2050’.

Enhancing the resilience of Scotland’s nature will not only enhance the ability of our peatlands and moors to be carbon sinks, but also improve our biodiversity. When it comes to woodlands, Scotland’s Forestry Strategy states that ‘all Scotland’s forests, woodlands and associated open ground habitats provide some biodiversity value’, and suitably managed native, ancient and semi-natural woodlands contribute the most to biodiversity. The Strategy also says that ‘while the forest and woodland creation target will help deliver additional carbon reductions, the existing resource must also be managed sustainably to preserve Scotland’s carbon sink’.

The need for a healthy and resilient natural environment

A recent poll highlighted that one of the main reasons people are concerned about climate change is its implications for wildlife. Global evidence, such as the recently published UN Global Assessment on the state of the planet’s biodiversity, confirms that climate change is a direct driver of biodiversity loss while it also exacerbates the impact of other factors.

So not only are we in the midst of a ‘climate emergency’, but also a biodiversity emergency. Climate change it not only affecting our nature, but it is also making it much more difficult for species and ecosystems to cope with other pressures, thus aggravating the ecological crisis.

Here in Scotland, we are affected too. The joint LINK-WWF Scotland report ‘Scotland’s Nature on Red Alert’ produced earlier this year, illustrated that Scotland’s biodiversity is already experiencing a changed climate, affecting species abundance, distribution, their food sources, breeding and ability to adapt.

There is now a real danger that by not investing in the protection of our nature, we will undermine the critically important role it is performing in terms of carbon sequestration. Evidence suggests that if the health of our natural ecosystems deteriorates, we could be faced with a situation where vegetation becomes a net emitter of greenhouse gases by the end of the century.

Promoting nature-based solutions

Our nature is in peril, therefore nature-based options should be the foremost in the suite of actions to reach net zero by 2045.

From the outset, LINK members have highlighted 5 key actions needed in the Climate Bill to ensure nature can play its part:
1) Strengthening Scotland’s Land Use Strategy and introducing regional land use plans – Regional land use plans must be introduced to better guide how land is used at a local level and how land managers are financially supported to reduce climate emissions and help nature.
2) Introducing a nitrogen balance sheet by 2020 – The Scottish Government recently announced research to help understand how emissions can be cut from the use of nitrogen fertilisers. This work must be followed up with targets to reduce emissions and policies which enable better use of fertiliser.
3) Restoring peatlands and establishing a sunset clause for peatland extraction – Governments must start accounting for emissions from peatlands as early as possible. This will show honesty about historical emissions but also incentivise more restoration action to stop the huge amounts of ongoing emissions. The current funding for peatland restoration activities must be boosted to meet the targets proposed in the CCC’s report. Finally, the future of peatlands under threat from planned extraction of peat for horticultural use must also be made clearer through a sunset clause which sets time limits for decisions to be made on the status of these areas.
4) Recognising the importance of blue carbon stores – Carbon stored on the sea bed and at our coasts is vulnerable, so we must do more our marine ecosystems. A programme of coastal habitat recreation is also needed to sequester more carbon and help protect coastal communities.
5) Introducing a National Ecological Network – this is a long-standing Scottish Government commitment through the 2020 Biodiversity Route Map which seeks to introduce a national ecological network to help with the identification of priority areas for action on habitat restoration, creation and protection. Healthy habitats are critically important to removing carbon and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and therefore help us tackle climate change.

June will be a key month for introducing such ambitious policies. The Scottish Parliament’s Environment Committee will now play a critically important role for getting our net zero pathway right.

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