Less climate change and more animals: the case for re-wilding the UK

Some woodland in Buckinghamshire. Image: Getty.

The UK’s Labour Party has pledged to offer voters a Green New Deal at the next election. This is a radical programme for decarbonising society and the economy by 2030, through phasing out fossil fuels, investing in renewable energy and creating a public works programme to build the zero-carbon infrastructure of the future.

In my recent report, A Green New Deal for Nature, I argued that giving land back to nature could be another part of this vision. Restoring forests and other natural habitats to 25 per cent of the UK’s land surface could sequester 14 per cent of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions each year. As emissions are scaled down and these ecosystems expand, they could continue to remove much greater quantities of carbon dioxide (CO₂) in future.

Often called “natural climate solutions”, restoring forests and wetlands draws carbon down from the atmosphere and stores it in the tissue of new vegetation and soil. On a large scale, and alongside leaving fossil fuels in the ground, this could help to limit global heating to well below 2°C.

The Domesday Book of 1086 indicated forest cover of 15 per cent, but significant loss of woodland started over 4,000 years ago in prehistory. By the beginning of the 20th century, this had dropped to 5 per cent. Image: Defra.

These habitats can be restored through rewilding, which means giving natural processes a helping hand by stopping the draining of peatland for example, or letting a woodland regrow. Reintroducing species that were once extinct in a region can also help ecosystems regenerate. While letting nature take care of itself isn’t appropriate in all cases, rewilding is one of the most powerful and cost-effective ways to resist climate breakdown and wildlife loss at the same time.

But what might that look like in practice?


The “green” in the Green New Deal

For wildlife, it’s important that restored habitats are connected. Linked habitats allow plants and animals to move more easily as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change. If species can migrate through green corridors to cooler areas, they could avoid local extinctions. This could mean a network of expanded hedgerows and woodland that criss-crosses the land, connecting wild habitats and ensuring species can migrate safely between them.

Other changes include reintroducing European beavers to flood plains to help manage flood risks. In remote places like the Scottish Highlands, wolves could return to keep herbivores in check and help woodlands rebound, increasing their long-term potential to store carbon. Rewilding instead of burning or draining carbon-rich peatlands would allow their vegetation and carbon stocks to recover. Wildlife, from insects to birds and large mammals, would have space to flourish. The UK would switch from being one of the world’s most nature-depleted countries to a green and vibrant land.

This may sound utopian, but it’s not. The UK is a densely populated country, and with 72 per cent of the land area used for agriculture, it might seem that there’s little room for anything else. But less than 20 per cent of the UK is occupied by crops or dense urban communities, so 80 per cent of it could be better managed for nature and storing carbon.

Some 45 per cent of the UK’s land surface is given to grazing livestock. The poorest land for agricultural productivity is only farmed because of taxpayer subsidies. Meanwhile, about 13 per cent of the UK is allocated to grouse-shooting and deer-stalking, often on degraded peatlands that are managed at huge environmental cost for the benefit of a tiny number of hunters. This land is currently of little value for food production, but it could store plenty of carbon if rewilded.

The exact locations should be the subject of local knowledge and consultation, but reducing grazing land from 45 per cent of the UK to 33 per cent and returning that 12 per cent to wild habitat could provide half of the carbon storage needed. Restoring half of the UK’s peatlands could add 6 per cent more land, alongside protecting the 7 per cent of the UK that is already broadleaf woodlands and wildflower meadows. Together, this would make 25 per cent of the UK’s land a refuge for wildlife and a vast reservoir of CO₂.


How can it be done?

Farm subsidies currently give £3bn to UK farmers ever year. By some estimates, subsidies are half the income of many farmers. After Brexit, this money could be given to farmers to reward them for storing carbon and rewilding, making this more financially viable than grazing on agriculturally poor land.

Economy-wide carbon taxes could also pay for rewilding schemes, while the government could also issue green bonds to raise funds to lend to landowners, helping cover the early costs of restoring land to wild habitat.

Reducing the demand for farm produce from land will also be key to making space for nature. This means cutting down on the most inefficient use of land – farming for meat and dairy, which uses between four and 100 times the land area to produce a single gram of protein compared to beans, nuts and other plant sources. Policies which make it easier for everyone to eat food that’s healthy and sustainable – including less meat and dairy – are the final pieces of the puzzle.

Less climate change, more wildlife, and a longer life lived closer to nature. That’s a lot to gain from modest investments in how land is used in the UK.

Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at University of Leeds and, UCL.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Are Britain’s political parties finally taking housing seriously?

Some houses. Image: Getty.

For more than 20 years we have been researching and writing about the downgrading of public housing in the UK. Thankfully, the tide finally appears to be turning.

Government failure can be seen most clearly in the form of homelessness, but the problems are bigger – high prices, high rents, housing insecurity and its high toll on mental health, overcrowding, beds in sheds and so on. For decades, financial support for public housing has been cut. Politicians have referred to estates of public housing as “sink” areas, marring the reputations of places and people.

While homelessness and rising prices and rents fill conversations about the housing problems of today, government action has focused on helping existing and new home owners. In the meantime, private landlords reap profits from an insecure, frequently poor quality and high cost sector.

But finally, several British political parties – Labour, the Green Party and Liberal Democrats – are offering evidence-based and convincing analyses of the problem and pledging to improve non-market housing provision.

It is perhaps not surprising that recent decades have generated this new position on how to fix the broken housing system, where the state – local and central – takes a more active role. It is increasingly clear that the market, often lauded as the most efficient way of providing and allocating housing, is actually a key driver of the failure to provide decent homes for many hundreds of thousands of households.

New homes

So what are the parties offering at this stage? The Conservatives focus on overseeing the construction of a million homes in the next five years. Social housing, it seems, will continue to be neglected under a Tory government.

Labour, meanwhile, have pledged to build 100,000 council homes a year by 2024 for those most in need. It also wants to fund a further 50,000 homes a year to be built by Housing Associations who also target those needing a home and will put a stop to Right to Buy: a scheme which has led to over 40 per cent of former council homes now being rented out by private landlords.

The Liberal Democrats propose 300,000 homes a year by 2024, to include 100,000 for social rent (by housing associations). The Greens match the Lib Dems while stressing the need for zero-carbon homes.

This social housing project won the Stirling Prize 2019.

The Conservatives stand out here, with their continued focus on offering public money to help aspirational owners rather than providing housing for those most in need. Their costly Help to Buy scheme, which they plan to extend, has been widely criticised for inflating prices, bolstering developer profits and doing nothing to help those in most need. The party’s election manifesto does not provide any details as to how it will increase the supply of social other than to state that “it will bring forward a social housing white paper”.

Talk of austerity, poverty and inequality may be tiring for some to keep hearing, but it is critical that we understand how bad things are for many people. Many older homeowners find it hard to understand the pressures of simply finding a place to live, let alone the ongoing challenge of funding that space, heating it or accessing it if disabled. Paying rent to help secure someone else’s retirement is particularly galling for many.


A social system

A system is needed that is designed for the needs of all people. Research shows that yes, of course a regulated market in owned housing is needed (controls are needed to ensure it is high quality and built in the right places). But this needs to exist alongside a high quality, professionally managed public housing sector capable of helping people to find decent homes. Increasingly, the shortfall in supply has enabled private landlords to offer low income households sub-standard properties.

The argument that public housing does not work is locked in a vision of large-scale estates that became increasingly unpopular as funding has been drained from them. Most analysts today envision a for-life option (the ability of tenants to stay for as long as they like so that they can feel secure) at a cost that allows other areas of life to be better enjoyed (health, education, access to work). Only home ownership and public rented housing can provide these kinds of outcomes.

Whatever our personal politics, it is vital that we understand that powerful interests circulate to promote housing as a market commodity, rather than a critical social good to be enjoyed by all. The pathway to this vision is littered with the profits to private landlords and the shattered dreams of the homeless and ill-housed.

It is precisely not in the interests of market providers to resolve the housing crisis. This may sound like heresy, but it is the evidence of many years of analysis.

Hope for the future

Looking to a future in which social housing forms a basis for social and economic investment offers genuinely thrilling prospects. There is no reason that a new council building programme cannot be enjoyed in partnership with private builders, and indeed using smaller companies, many of whom have been threatened or busted by the current crisis.

On the environmental front, social homes can be built or retrofitted to enhanced standards that are warm, safe, flood resistant and carbon neutral.

To say this will cost a lot of money is stating the obvious. But housing is a major component in the reproduction of wealth inequalities, private profiteering and carbon emissions (energy use in homes accounts for 14 per cent of the UK’s total). The fact that political attention is being focused more clearly on challenging these problems and getting traction on a home-building programme for citizens should be welcomed by all.

The housing crisis of today is an enduring problem, one that goes back more than a hundred years, when walking through the slums of the growing industrial metropolises, Friedrich Engels asked why more housing wasn’t provided when so many people were in need. The question today is, why are we still asking the same old question?

Rowland Atkinson, Chair in Inclusive Societies, University of Sheffield and Keith Jacobs, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Housing and Community Research Unit, University of Tasmania.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.