“Craig, the science on climate change is now so stark, surely Friends of the Earth should be working on that and nothing else. I mean, protecting biodiversity is important, but we have to stop climate change first.”
“Craig, I’m so worried about ecosystem collapse – surely Friends of the Earth should focus on that, and leave the fight on climate change to others.”
These comments were made to me by two people I respect enormously, each with a long history in the environmental movement.
Funny how compartmentalising the world can stop us seeing the big picture.
The truth is, to see runaway climate change and ecosystem collapse as separate issues is artificial. Both are symptoms of humanity’s failure to respect and live fairly within environmental limits.
We have no hope of stopping climate change unless we can restore the abundance of nature. And we have no hope of stopping the crisis in biodiversity unless we tackle climate change and – more to the point – the root causes of both.
Nature stores carbon
Think I’m overstating it? During the ice ages, global average temperatures were roughly 5°C lower than they are today. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were a lot lower than now – and that's before we started burning fossil fuels.
So where was all the carbon during those ice ages?
The vast bulk of it was in the biosphere – otherwise known as life on Earth.
Much of this would have been in the oceans, teeming with marine life, from the smallest plankton to huge whales – all representing living carbon stores. Even today, some of the most productive fisheries are found in the coldest rather waters. Just a few hundred years ago, before industrial scale fishing, fisherman used to describe the North Sea as “boiling with fish”.
On land the northern latitudes would have been covered in ice. But elsewhere vast peatbogs and forests sucked carbon out the air and locked it away.
This kept the planet cool until the next periodic wobble in the Earth’s rotation kicked off a warmer period. That released some of this carbon, and lots from the deep oceans, back into the atmosphere (read up on Milankovitch cycles if you’re interested).
Nature regulates the climate
The point is, before humans came along, nature did a good job of regulating the climate in the warm periods (inter-glacials) and ice ages – and the transition between the two.
In fact, it did such a good job that it supported the emergence of our human civilisation. For 12,000 years we've enjoyed a Goldilocks climate – not too hot, nor too cold.
It's principally nature we have to thank for that.
Of course, to avoid runaway climate change and achieve net zero emissions (removing as many emissions as we produce) we need to stop burning fossil fuels, power our world on renewable energy, promote energy efficiency, decarbonise transport and so on.
But we also need to restore the abundance of nature and its ability to regulate the climate. That’s not just about stopping the loss of nature – including deforestation in the tropics – but also reversing that decline.
In 2019, Friends of the Earth launched a campaign to double tree cover in every region of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We are continuing to encourage tree planting (right trees, right place), but also rewilding and lots of natural regeneration of our native trees.
We’re doing so partly because of what it will do for wildlife, air quality and wellbeing (studies show that trees are good for people’s mental health).
Doubling the number of trees could deliver annual carbon sequestration equal to around 10% of the UK’s current greenhouse gas emissions.
But we’re also working on this campaign because doubling the number of trees could deliver annual carbon sequestration of around 37-50 MtCO2e (million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent) per year. That’s equal to around 10% of the UK’s current greenhouse gas emissions.
Trees are our focus, but we’re hoping to stimulate a much wider debate about why restoring nature is essential for tackling climate change.
Habitats and animals
Consider this: Heathrow Airport is under pressure over the fast-growing emissions from aviation; pressure that will grow especially if it builds a third runway. The airport has offered to make further growth in emissions carbon neutral. It plans to do this partly by paying to restore degraded UK peatlands.
But imagine how much better it would be it we could restore peatlands and capture all that carbon without building a third runway.
It’s not just habitats. It’s estimated that humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since the 1970s. That’s a lot of carbon. And while some of it is now stored in billions of new humans instead, those humans are busy burning creatures that were fossilised millions of years ago.
Playing to nature's strengths
As scientific evidence mounts about the urgent need to tackle climate change, there’s an increasing clamour for engineers to develop huge machines to suck carbon out of the air and store it underground. It’s hard to think of anything more symbolic of how humanity has lost the plot.
Nature is the ultimate carbon capture and storage machine. The fastest and cheapest way for Britain to suck carbon out the air would be to double tree cover, restore our peatlands and wetlands, restore fish populations in the North Sea to their historic levels, and end the chemical warfare in the countryside that has led to the catastrophic collapse of insect and bird populations.
If we did this – as well as stopped burning fossil fuels, reduced meat consumption, and switched to 100% renewable energy – we might have a chance of avoiding runaway climate change.
I bet we’d all be a bit healthier and happier too.