Nature and Wildlife
Climate change is already causing major changes to the natural environment in the UK. These are not only important because of the intrinsic value of nature and wildlife, but also because of the critical role a healthy environment plays in providing goods and services that benefit people; from food to clean water.
How does climate change impact nature?
Nature is affected by climate change by gradually increasing temperatures and by extreme events - including droughts, extreme heat or cold, and storms. Although so far most impacts have been relatively modest, much greater change is expected in the future.
In response to warming, species are moving further north and upwards to cooler altitudes. This causes declines and local extinctions of species that were once common, as well as the arrival of novel species. Warming is also changing the timing of seasonal events (phenology), including by accelerating bud-burst and flowering. Often, species move or alter their phenology at different speeds. This complicates the way that they interact, and can result in mismatch – for example, in warmer Springs, bees can hatch before the species they usually pollinate have begun to flower (potentially affecting food production). In contrast, extreme events typically have rapid impacts on population size, for example by causing death in a particular tree species during drought.
In the oceans climate change brings the additional threat of acidification - as CO2 has built up in the atmosphere, more of it has dissolved in sea water, increasing acidity by 30% since the industrial revolution. This is a serious problem for species that build their own shells or exoskeletons, including corals. The threat to corals (which support half a billion people globally) is compounded by increased storminess and water temperature, resulting in the loss of half of all coral reefs in the last 30 years.
Climate change also affects ecological processes, for example by reducing soil fertility and the ability of natural habitat to sequester and store carbon. This ability of ecosystems to take up CO2 from the atmosphere and lock it into vegetation and soils is a critical process that currently removes around half of all human emissions from the atmosphere, significantly slowing climate change. Enhancing this process by restoring and conserving ecosystems could play a major role in helping us meet our climate targets.
What is being done to protect nature?
It is important to start your conversation with your MP by acknowledging the work that is already being done to tackle nature conservation and its role in addressing climate change.
- Nature conservation in the UK focuses on protected areas designated by country-level nature conservation bodies. Each country has produced its own biodiversity strategy.
- At the UK level the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) and the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) have published the UK Post-2010 Biodiversity Framework, indicating how the UK aims to contribute to International Biodiversity targets, and to the EU Biodiversity Strategy.
- Currently, extra protection to UK wildlife is provided by the EU Birds and Habitats Directives. These allow the designation of new types of protected area, and require public bodies to promote the ‘diversity, richness and extent’ of nature. It is not clear whether these directives will be integrated into post-Brexit law.
- 70% of UK land is used for agriculture. Efforts to align agriculture with nature conservation center on the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The CAP was reformed in 2013 to promote farmland biodiversity and environmental stewardship. Some provisions in the CAP achieve this to some extent, although its overall success in protecting nature has been questioned. Replacing the CAP following Brexit presents both risks and opportunities for nature.
What more could be done?
Restore degraded habitat
Importantly, the threat from climate change depends on how degraded, or damaged, the natural environment is. Degradation may result from fragmentation, pollution, unsustainable harvesting, or interruption of processes (such as the flow of water through a landscape). Restoring degraded habitat makes it and the species it contains more resilient, meaning they are better able to bounce back from negative impacts of climate change, helping them adapt and survive in the long term. Restored, high quality habitat can also store more carbon, helping us mitigate our emissions and slow climate change.
Link up green space
To respond to climate change species need to move. Closer, more connected green spaces make it easier for species to move through landscapes to find suitable conditions. This also improves the resilience of mobile species to extreme events by making a greater range of habitat (and more chances to avoid extreme conditions) available. While even small spaces contribute to connectivity, large spaces are particularly important, as these add habitat complexity. Complex habitat is more likely to contain types of vegetation that store more carbon, as well as being more likely to provide conditions needed by specialist species.
High biodiversity improves the resilience of habitats to climate change. Where there are more species, the consequences of any one species to moving, disappearing, or flowering earlier than usual are reduced, as others that interact with it have more choice of substitutes. Biodiversity also underpins the services provided by the natural environment that benefit people, such as water purification and improved well-being.
Top 5 Facts to Drop into a Conversation with your MP
- Ecosystems contribute more than twice as much to human well-being as worldwide GDP
- Protecting ecosystems protects people; healthy ecosystems can reduce urban flood heights by 20%
- More than 80% of natural processes central to a healthy natural environment are already being impacted by climate change
- Climate change may threaten a quarter of all species on land with extinction by 2050
- Conserving ecosystems that sequester and store carbon could meet the negative emissions requirements of more than one third of climate change scenarios that keep warming to 1.5˚C
The Forest of Marston Vale is one of 12 community forests designated by the government in the early 1990s to restore land degraded by industrial activity.
The reforestation of an 1141 hectare area in Marston Vale to help meet this target provides a clear example of how nature conservation and restoration can address climate change, while also benefiting the local community and economy. The forest removes nearly 5000 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year – the equivalent of the carbon footprint of about 500 people in the UK, or of driving your car for over 100 years. It also provides £13 million of natural ecosystem services to people each year (as valued by Natural Capital Solutions). This includes the removal of 65 million tonnes of health-damaging particulate matter, and a reduction in peak water flow that protects the local area from flooding. Every £1 invested in foresting this area is providing £11 worth of ecosystem services.
What can you ask your MP to do?
Nationally: Support the incorporation of the Habitats and Birds Directives into UK law following Brexit. Support clear, legally binding targets in the 25 year environmental plan being developed by DEFRA. See WWF’s briefing here for more details.
Follow up: a more in depth ‘ask’ if an MP shows a particular interest. Ask how the UK’s next National Adaptation Programme, due in 2018, will ensure the conservation of natural habitats that play a key role in storing carbon and slowing climate change – such as peatlands and lowland fens. Find out more about the UK National Adaptation Programme here.