Nature’s role in averting a climate crisis

Updated: Feb 10

Climate breakdown is getting much more media coverage of late and we hear a lot about carbon footprints, carbon emissions and zero-carbon but a term you may be less familiar with is ‘carbon sink’. Nothing to do with the one you’ll find in your kitchen but vital parts of our natural world that are essential in our fight to address climate change.

Carbon is the fourth most abundant element in the universe. It has an amazing ability to form bonds with many other elements and it is the basic building block of life. That includes life from very long ago, which became the energy dense fossil fuels we know today as coal and oil, the burning of which produces global warming gases like carbon dioxide.

So, carbon is everywhere but too much in the wrong place can cause problems, as we see with global warming. If we are to effectively address climate change, we need to dramatically reduce the volume of carbon-based compounds that are being absorbed in the atmosphere and remove the excess carbon that has accumulated there, from burning fossil fuels since the start of the industrial revolution.

This is where our carbon sinks come in. They are in fact natural reservoirs that accumulate and store carbon containing compounds indefinitely. Globally, the most important carbon sinks are vegetation, soils and the oceans, and there is an urgent need to both repair and build the capacity of them all. They have been damaged and depleted by the way they have been used and managed over decades.

We can reduce the levels of carbon being absorbed by the atmosphere through the use of renewable energy and by changing the way we live but we also need to ensure that the carbon in our natural carbon sinks stays where it is and that they continue to capture and store safely the excess carbon in our atmosphere. Nature recovery is essential if the climate crisis is to be averted.

In the Harrogate District one way of locking away the excess carbon is by increasing woodland cover, because trees absorb carbon as they grow and they also improve the soil’s ability to store carbon. The UK has much lower woodland cover compared with other European countries. A significant increase in woodland cover is a primary goal of the White Rose Forest (WRF) project but it is equally important to protect the existing woodlands we have and to always bear in mind that planting trees is not an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels.

Whilst tree planting tends to makes the headlines, just as important is the correct management and repair of our peatlands, which when damaged or in poor condition, as many are in the UK, release carbon. The UK’s peatlands are already a massive carbon sink, bigger than all the carbon stored in the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined and this carbon needs to stay where it is.

The Yorkshire Peat Partnership, supported by Nidderdale AONB, have been working diligently on the repair of peatlands in our district and the government’s recent announcement that the sale of peat compost is to be banned from 2024 is very welcome – if long overdue. In that same announcement important and welcome commitments to restore degraded peatlands, triple tree planting rates in England and set up a species reintroduction taskforce were also made.