What are natural climate solutions?

The sun rising over a healthy peat bog by Ben Hall/2020VISION

The climate crisis now regularly makes the headlines, and rightly so. But there’s another crisis – inextricably linked – lurking too often unnoticed in its shadow: the massive, ongoing loss of nature.

In the UK, 41 per cent of species have declined since 1970 and one in seven are now threatened with extinction. The climate emergency has terrible ramifications for wildlife, but the loss of wildlife and wild places also makes the climate crisis worse. The good news is, the weight of scientific research has never been as strong and we’re in a privileged position where we know what needs to be done to help – nature-based solutions must play a key role in the fight against the Climate and Nature Emergency.

So we need to plant trees?

Tree planting is just one part of the solution. Natural climate solutions are exactly that: natural solutions to the climate crisis. They come in the form of a range of healthy natural habitats – like peatlands and woodlands – that capture and store huge amounts of carbon, taking it out of the atmosphere and locking it away in soils and plant matter, sometimes for thousands of years.

But there’s a problem – many of our wild places are damaged, fragmented and threatened with further destruction. As these habitats are lost, carbon is released and the wildlife that lives in these special places is squeezed and pressured, with fewer places to feed, breed and survive.

Natural climate solutions on land

When you think about natural solutions to climate change, tree planting is probably the first thing that springs to mind. However, trees are just one part of a natural arsenal that, together, will be incredibly powerful in turning around the fortunes of our environment.

A healthy bog rich with cottongrass at sunset

Bog habitat by Ben Hall/2020VISION


These forgotten wildlife refuges are absolutely vital in the fight against both climate change and the tragic loss of wildlife across the UK. When healthy, peatlands store twice as much carbon as all the world’s forests, help to reduce flooding and can improve water quality, but many aren’t healthy.

More than 94 per cent of the UK’s lowland peat bogs have been destroyed or damaged, and just two per cent remain in our region alone. The rest have been exploited for agriculture, development and horticulture; the peat soils drained, ripped open and scarred, leaching carbon back into the atmosphere. In the uplands, only four per cent of England’s upland deep peatlands are in good ecological condition and actively forming peat. Drainage, burning and overgrazing are leaving the peat exposed and are contributing to a loss of the peat-forming, bog-loving vegetation our peatlands and their wildlife depend on.

Peatland is a type of wetland, made up of soil formed from slowly decomposing plants. In fact, peat bogs grow at a rate of just 1mm a year, but in just 12 months, machines can extract 500 years’ worth of growth. Draining and digging up peat turns this carbon store into a carbon source, with the UKs damaged peatlands emitting around 23 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. Fixing them is crucial.

Thanks to grant aid and donations from our members and supporters, we’ve been able to buy and restore many of the peatlands at risk in our region including Winmarleigh Moss and Little Woolden Moss. We’re rewetting the drained landscape and replanting sphagnum moss, cottongrass, sundews and more of the bog plants essential to a healthy bog ecosystem that continues to form peat and store carbon. In turn, this supports unique wildlife such as rare large heath butterflies and birds of prey like merlins.

A veteran oak tree with orange and yellow leaves in an autumn woodland

Autumn oak tree by Mark Hamblin/2020VISION


Trees absorb carbon as they grow, storing it in their trunks, boughs, roots and in the soil; so allowing woodlands to grow naturally will lock up carbon and help counter our manmade carbon emissions. Not only that, but woodlands and hedges also reduce soil erosion by acting as natural barriers to wind and water. Deeper rooting trees make the soil (another valuable carbon store) more stable, while the addition of organic matter from leaf litter and root debris actually improves the structure of the soil itself. We’re encouraging landowners to better manage and even plant new woodlands and hedges on their land; working with other organisations to plant the right trees in the right places; and campaigning to protect some of our most precious patches of woodland.

The beauty of trees is that they are self-generating, cost very little, and in many cases don’t even need to be planted. Allowing trees to regenerate naturally often results in forests which are more resilient against drought and disease. Research suggests that this approach would store around 400 tonnes of carbon per square kilometre every year, as well as providing improved flood protection.

Oxeye daisies and and orchids in a wildflower meadow on a sunny day

Wildflower meadow by Jim Higham


Did you know that grasslands soak up and store carbon in their roots and the soil? Sadly, between 1990 and 2006, an estimated 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide was released by grasslands being put to the plough.

We desperately need to restore more degraded (also called ‘improved’) grassland into species-rich grassland that absorbs carbon and provides a vital refuge for invertebrates and other wildlife. The sheer diversity of plants and fungi in species-rich grassland supports a stunning array of creatures, some of which are entirely dependent on foodplants that grow only in these places.

Grasslands also have important benefits for we humans:

  • Proximity to semi-natural grasslands increases predator control of agricultural pests.
  • Flower-rich floodplain meadows have more absorbent soils, so capture and hold back floodwaters more effectively than improved grassland.
  • Species-rich pasture and hay benefit grazing livestock, providing a wider range of minerals and amino acids than intensive pasture, resulting in healthier animals and healthier food.
  • The magical colour and texture of wildlife of species-rich grassland enriches our wellbeing.

Through our South Pennines Grasslands project, which ran from 2014 – 2019, we restored 200 hectares of degraded species-rich grassland and created 52 hectares of brand new species-rich grassland. We secured management agreements for many of the sites and are planning more grassland creation work with landowners, as well as continuing to manage species-rich meadows on reserves like Freemans Pasture, which is home to the rare plant dyer’s greenweed.

Natural climate solutions at sea

Oceans absorb an estimated 20 – 35 per cent of manmade carbon dioxide every year, storing it in plants, sediments and even the bodies of animals like tiny phytoplankton. Imagine how much more carbon our seas could hold if we restored them, bringing back more seagrass meadows, coastal marshes and the wildlife they support.

A limestone outcrop on the edge of saltmarsh and mudflats at Morecambe Bay

Morecambe Bay saltmarsh by Peter Cairns/2020VISION


These superstars of the carbon storage world lock up carbon dioxide in the marshland plants that get buried in the mud when they die, rather than decomposing and releasing carbon into the atmosphere. These coastal habitats also act as buffers against erosion, as natural flood defences and important breeding and feeding grounds for a host of birds and other animals, especially the huge influxes of wading birds that arrive on our shores in winter. Saltmarshes are also important nursery areas for fish.

Unfortunately, we’re losing around 100 hectares of UK saltmarsh each year to development and rising sea levels. We count ourselves lucky to have some vital remnants in our region. Barnaby's Sands and Burrows Marsh is one of the last extensive areas of ungrazed saltmarsh in the county; a paradise for redshank, knot, common sandpipers and lapwings, as well as birds of prey like peregrine falcons and declining songbirds like skylarks. On the Heysham Peninsula, Potts Corner is home to what is thought to be the last remaining colony of belted beauty moths in England.

A spiny seahorse sheltering in a patch of seagrass

Spiny seahorse in seagrass by Alexander Mustard/2020VISION

Seagrass meadows

Did you know that seagrass meadows hold 10 per cent of the ocean’s total burial of carbon, despite covering less than 0.2 per cent of the ocean floor? If a seagrass bed remains undisturbed, it can trap vast amounts of carbon in plants and algae for hundreds of years, as decomposition happens more slowly under the sediment.

We’ve lost nearly 50 per cent of our seagrass meadows in the past 35 years, which means carbon is leaching back into the atmosphere and creatures such as seahorses, flatfish and anemones are losing their homes. At low tide, wildfowl like wigeon and Brent geese feed on the exposed seagrass.

How we’re pushing for change

So much of our local landscape has become degraded and devoid of wildlife. We can’t waste more time – the Climate and Nature Emergency needs urgent action, with natural climate solutions already at our fingertips. As well as working on the ground to protect precious wild places, restore degraded habitats and help local wildlife to recover, we work alongside other Wildlife Trusts to push for investment in natural solutions to the climate crisis and strong environmental regulations that will ensure natures recovery.

Our Wilder Future campaign holds the government to account and calls for the robust legislation we’re so lacking. Human-created barriers mean species can’t move and adapt to climate change or even live their normal lives. Roads, train lines and built development slice wild spaces into isolated pockets, while many of the natural habitats that still remain aren’t being managed properly. Everything works better when it’s connected, and one of the ways we’re ensuring this happens is by lobbying to have a Nature Recovery Network – a coordinated, effective response that restores and connects habitats across the whole of the UK – enshrined in law. Essentially, we need wild places to be more numerous, healthier and better connected. This broad, joined-up approach is vital to stopping the loss of nature and, with 66 per cent of carbon in nature-rich areas lying outside of protected sites, helping combat the climate crisis.

How you can help