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Nature-based solutions are key to tackling global climate change

Yesterday on the penultimate day of COP 26, Water UK and Bright Blue hosted ‘In competition or collaboration? Nature and net zero’ – an event to discuss the importance of collaboration when it comes to meeting net zero emissions target and protecting the global environment.

A major focus of the event was the often-conflicting debate between tackling climate change while also solving the global ecological crisis with all speakers agreeing that these issues need to be solved in tandem through a combined and concerted effort.

Our chief executive officer, Christine McGourty, outlined that, historically, as a sector the water industry has relied on concrete and other hard infrastructure to carry out its services to customers. However, in recent years the industry has rapidly moved towards nature-based solutions, noting that the sector has committed to restoring 10,000 hectares of degraded peatland on water company land by 2030, which will reduce a huge amount of carbon dioxide.

Christine noted that it was this week exactly a year ago that the UK water industry spearheaded the world’s first detailed sector-wide plan setting out a range of routes to get the industry to net zero by 2030. Christine also highlighted that nature-based solutions will be central to net zero targets and have the added benefits of restoring nature, protecting the long-term security of our water supply and reducing flood risk.

Providing examples of these solutions, Christine pointed to United Utilities, which is restoring bog vegetation that  fosters new habitats for wildlife, increasing biodiversity and contributing to improved water quality. Likewise, Welsh Water’s ‘Greener Grangetown’ programme is dramatically reducing surface run-off issues, improving the way the area looks  and reducing emissions by not using energy intensive wastewater treatment works.

Christine said: “We are clear that mitigating climate change has to be embedded in the delivery of water and wastewater services that our industry provides. By acting early and using the solutions in our Routemap they will help us meet the twin challenges of net zero and enhancing nature. We need both and they should complement each other.”

Tony Juniper CBE, chair of Natural England, noted that throughout history, nature and tackling climate change have been treated in silos. COP 26 has smashed this consensus and the world is now aware that both issues must be addressed with combined strategies of mitigation (restoration and protection of carbon assets), adaptation (conservation and restoration of ecosystems) and restoring nature to cope with the climate changes of the future. Tony noted we must not enter a trade-off mindset. He said “For two long we have been tackling climate change and ecological decline as separate issues.”

Kelly Ann Naylor, vice-chair of UN-Water, opened her remarks stating that changes in the climate are largely felt by humanity through experiences with our global water system. Kelly invited everyone to do their part and contribute to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Action Space and to exchange learnings ahead of the 2023 UN Conference on Water, with the focus on the UN’s SDG6 to ensure access to water and sanitation for all.

She also outlined the progress in water reaching the poorest in the world through better sanitisation services as well as countries investing in better data and governance over water and welcomed adaptation being centre stage at this year’s COP.

“Technology-based solutions and nature-based solutions are not in competition. In the area of technological innovation this is an area where those two silos can be broken and help one another.”

Mike Thompson, chief economist and director of analysis for the Committee on Climate Change, spoke about needing to take a ‘big picture view’ when it comes to cutting global carbon emissions. Mike noted that as the world reduces fossil fuel consumption this will have fundamental, positive benefits for nature in better air quality, fewer fuel spills and a more protected natural world. He also touched on the importance of the global diet in driving positives for nature and climate change, and noted that more work needs to be done to join up the positives to the climate, individual lifestyles and nature when it comes to reducing meat consumption.

“Nature and climate change are in competition in very rare scenarios but worth taking seriously. This includes not cutting down standing forests for biomass, not planting trees on peatlands, ensuring nuclear plants are located by the coast to use sea water, using carbon capture and storage technology when needed and prioritising renewables.”

Torgny Holmgren, executive director of the Stockholm International Water Institute, was keen to address the devastating impact that droughts have on the planet saying that these could be the next pandemic’ of the world. He noted it was positive that the new Nationally Determined Contributions, which embody efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.  make reference to using nature-based solutions more in national climate change strategies. Finally, he discussed the importance of protecting our delicate ecosystems to make sure they don’t shift to becoming carbon emitters.

“With nature and climate change being tackled together we could be entering a new era of tackling climate change in a sustainable way.”

Ronan Palmer, associate director of clean economy for think tank E3G, stressed that he did not in any way see a conflict between climate and biodiversity but has however seen this slowly begin to creep in during the global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. He noted that there has at times been competition in funding between tackling climate change, global health, and infrastructure whereas these should in fact all be working in harmony to protect people and our planet.

He said: “I am deeply disappointed that world leaders are not yet mobilising with the urgency that is needed to address the climate crisis. Governments need to take action and look again at such things as debt and nature swaps, and debt and climate swaps. Without the urgency we are not going to solve climate change or the biodiversity crisis.”

Professor Tom Stephenson, professor of water sciences at Cranfield University urged energy industry leaders around the world to begin rapid reverse extraction of global natural resources, noting that after hundreds of years of taking carbon our of the earth and putting it into the atmosphere it is now time to repair and reverse this process. He said: “Technological solutions don’t need to have a negative impact on the environment – instead these solutions can work hand in hand with nature-based solutions.”

You can watch a recording of the Bright Blue and Water UK event here.