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% of the UK’s land surface could sequester 14% 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.
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?
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% of the land area used for agriculture, it might seem that there’s little room for anything else. But less than 20% of the UK is occupied by crops or dense urban communities, so 80% of it could be better managed for nature and storing carbon.
Some 45% 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% 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% of the UK to 33% and returning that 12% to wild habitat could provide half of the carbon storage needed. Restoring half of the UK’s peatlands could add 6% more land, alongside protecting the 7% of the UK that is already broadleaf woodlands and wildflower meadows. Together, this would make 25% of the UK’s land a refuge for wildlife and a vast reservoir of CO₂.
Farm subsidies currently give £3 billion 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.
Last month we lost Dr Penny Whetton – one of the world’s most respected climate scientists and a brilliant mentor to the next generation of researchers. Penny will also be remembered as a passionate environmentalist, artist, photographer and champion of the transgender community.
Penny was at the forefront of climate change projection science for more than three decades. She played a key role in putting CSIRO, and Australia, on the map as a world-leading centre for climate change research. Her groundbreaking scientific work was among the first to raise awareness of the challenges of a warming world, laying the groundwork for possible solutions.
Penny was a strong believer in the power of each person to make a difference, at work and elsewhere. Her professional career is a great example. She also encouraged those around her to seek out challenges that could benefit the world. That creative energy continues to flow through everybody who was close to her.
Penny’s work focused on understanding the emergent threat of a changing climate on Australia and the region. She authored papers and reports that have become fundamental to our understanding of how climate change would affect us.
Penny was recruited to the CSIRO’s new climate impacts group in 1990, after completing a doctorate at the University of Melbourne. She rapidly established a reputation for high quality science and innovative thinking.
Penny was a senior leader for much of her career and managed many large collaborative projects with colleagues in CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology. After retiring in 2014, Penny became an honorary research fellow at CSIRO and the University of Melbourne, where she continued to be involved in climate research, advisory panels and consulting work.
Over her 25 years at CSIRO, Penny drove innovation in making climate projections useful to decision makers. Her clear grasp of the science and its impact led to novel ways of communicating many complicated concepts.
One of Penny’s many great ideas was to combine historic climate observations with future projections in a single timeline of data – creating a seamless path from past to future. This visualisation method is now a standard part of the climate projections toolkit.
Penny led the development of national climate change projections for Australia in 1992, 1996, 2001, 2007 and 2015. The 2015 projections remain the most comprehensive ever developed for Australia. They are widely used by the private sector, governments and NGOs and were one of Penny’s proudest achievements.
Penny’s science was renowned internationally as well as at home. She spoke at dozens of international conferences, and workshops and journalists sought her out regularly for interviews.
She was a lead author for three climate change assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading authority on the subject. Penny’s work was recognised many times, including with a Eureka Prize in 2003 and internationally as part of the IPCC team that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
More recently, Penny provided scientific assurance on the external advisory board for the European Climate Prediction system, a project strongly influenced by methods and thinking developed under her leadership in climate projections for Australia.
Penny was instrumental in forging links between researchers in CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and universities. This led to several collaborative, high-impact reports on climate change projections.
Penny was generous with her time and guidance – committed to developing the next generation of climate change specialists. Always with a smile on her face, she combined a great intellect and strongly held opinions with a receptiveness to the ideas of others.
Many of us writing this were mentored by Penny at various stages in our academic careers. Anyone who’s studied for a Masters or PhD knows meetings with academic supervisors can be stressful. But meetings with Penny were quite the opposite – she was friendly, but academically rigorous. Collectively we owe her an immense debt of gratitude.
Penny’s diverse knowledge and skills – including geology, geography, meteorology, climate, history, carpentry, painting and photography – gave her unique perspectives to draw on when tackling the wicked problems posed by climate change.
Penny was a real friend to many. Students became colleagues, colleagues became friends, and all of us were invited to be part of her life in a diverse extended family. We were pleased to support Penny in her own gender affirmation, and for many LGBTIQA+ scientists, Penny was both role model and supportive friend.
Penny had a wonderful knack for making inclusive conversation, whether at work or over dinner. Her contributions were insightful and grounded in truth, very often tinged with humour, and always kind and understanding.
We all assumed there would always be another dinner, and another opportunity to enjoy her company and be fascinated by her conversation. Sadly, and shockingly, this possibility has been taken from us.
Penny made our lives richer, more interesting and more human. Her absence leaves a massive hole in our community and our lives.
Penny Whetton is survived by her wife Janet and adult children John and Leon.
The following people contributed significantly to this article:
Aurel Moise (Bureau of Meteorology), Barrie Pittock (retired), Chris Gerbing (CSIRO), Craig Heady (CSIRO), David Karoly (CSIRO), Debbie Abbs (retired), Dewi Kirono (CSIRO), Diana Pittock (retired), Helen Cleugh (CSIRO), Ian Macadam (University of New South Wales Sydney), Ian Watterson (CSIRO), Jim Salinger (University of Florence, Italy), Jonas Bhend (MeteoSwiss, Switzerland), Karl Braganza (Bureau of Meteorology), Kathy McInnes (CSIRO), Kevin Hennessy (CSIRO), Leanne Webb (CSIRO), Louise Wilson (Bureau of Meteorology), Mandy Hopkins (CSIRO), Marie Ekström (Cardiff University, UK), Michael Grose (CSIRO), Rob Colman (Bureau of Meteorology) and Scott Power (Bureau of Meteorology).