The increasingly spirited debate about how the UK should meet its environmental targets is really welcome in my view. We need practical solutions that are understood by all, think carefully about costs to families, involve as many people as possible and create new jobs along the way.
I have therefore been looking at our natural assists and expertise that we can already boast, which is genuinely world-leading.
The latest IPCC report highlights that Britain will face more frequent flooding, and the erosion of our coastline, as a result of climate change. Fortunately, we have a natural solution to help: wetlands.
Wetlands store carbon, alleviate flooding, provide vital habitats for wildlife, clean our water and offer beautiful spaces for recreation and health.
These benefits have an economic value that is not yet properly accounted for by governments or markets. Nature has historically been seen as a free resource to plunder rather than an asset to be managed and enhanced. This means that while wetlands offer solutions to many of the country’s environmental, safety and health challenges, they are often overlooked.
The review into the economics of biodiversity, led by Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta and commissioned by HM Treasury, was clear that we need to change how we think, act, and measure economic success to protect and enhance our prosperity and the natural world. Wetlands could be a leading example of how to incorporate natural capital into the Treasury’s thinking and establish markets for the services these natural assets provide.
In the UK, we have 175 Ramsar sites – which are wetlands of international importance designated under the Ramsar Convention. Unfortunately, despite this lead, we have still lost 90 per cent of our wetland habitats in the last century.
This, and the potential benefits outlined above, is why I established the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Wetlands with the Wildfowl and Wetlands team who are headquartered in my constituency. We are calling for the restoration of 100,000 hectares of wetland habitat as a key part of our parliamentary mission.
Increased wetland areas can improve our resilience to the impacts of climate change and help us reach Net Zero. They are vital carbon sinks. Saltmarsh, a coastal wetland, absorbs carbon at two to four times the rate of tropical rainforests.
Research suggests that a more capricious climate could cost the UK up to 1.5 per cent of GDP per annum by 2045 without further adaptation measures. Saltmarsh, in particular, is an important defence for low-lying coastal areas at risk from rising sea levels and more frequent storm surges caused by climate change. By targeting coastal habitat creation in areas vulnerable to sea-level rise, we can create a natural flood defence for farms, homes and businesses.
Wetlands can also help us mitigate inland flooding by regulating the movement of water through our landscapes. By re-wiggling rivers, restoring floodplains, and reintroducing beavers, we can reduce flood peaks and protect communities downstream from flooding. They can also improve the health of our rivers and seas by filtering out pollutants like nitrogen, phosphorus, pesticide, and sediment from runoff and sewage effluent.
Environment Agency analysis shows that achieving the Government’s target for 75 per cent of rivers to achieve ‘good status’ would generate benefits of around £22.5 billion for costs of £17.5 billion.
Our wetlands are also home to around a tenth of British wildlife despite covering just three per cent of land area. Sadly, this incredible biodiversity is at risk, with over ten per cent of our freshwater and wetland species threatened with extinction. Restoring our wetlands will be critical to achieving our legally binding target to halt species decline by 2030.
I am a believer in the idea of a ‘Natural Health Service’, with research from Natural England showing we could save an estimated £2.1 billion in health costs each year if everyone in England had good access to the natural environment.
Communities value their local wetlands for recreation and respite, from canals, rivers and lakes to attenuation ponds and rain gardens. Research shows that just ten minutes of exposure to urban wetlands may be enough to produce improvements in mood, with results especially pronounced in people who self-report elevated stress.
As I set out in my recent essay for the Conservative Environment Network, there are three ways we can help restore wetlands.
Firstly, we need to include the carbon removals by our wetland habitats like saltmarsh in our greenhouse gas inventory, just as we do for woodland and peatland. This will encourage the protection and restoration of saltmarsh to reach Net Zero by 2050, and unlock private funding for wetlands to complement public investment. A report commissioned by the Natural Capital Committee found that saltmarsh creation had a benefit-cost ratio of between two- and three-to-one.
Secondly, we need to provide private actors with a market framework to invest in wetland creation. The taxpayer must not face all costs associated with saving the planet, but equally, the market needs incentivising.
The Government has an ambitious new target to raise at least £500 million in private finance to support nature’s recovery every year by 2027 in England, rising to more than £1 billion by 2030. Yet while we have an established carbon offsetting market for woodland and peatland, we have not for saltmarsh.
We need to establish a saltmarsh carbon code to plug this gap so that saltmarsh carbon has a route to market. The Government could also commission the development of credits for other benefits delivered by saltmarsh creation, such as for biodiversity and natural flood management.
Finally, the Treasury should include natural capital within the mandate of the UK Infrastructure Bank (UKIB) by setting a third objective for the bank to contribute toward our target to halt species decline by 2030. This would support the two objectives (regional economic growth and Net Zero) and take forward the key principle in Professor Dasgupta’s review that nature must not be left off the balance sheet.
Achieving our environmental goals and mitigating the impacts of climate change in a way that creates jobs and economic value will be essential to our future prosperity and resilience. To achieve this, we need a new conversation and a new look at multi-benefit solutions like wetlands.
We are naturally a wet, boggy island teeming with wildlife. We can take action to start drawing on these natural gifts to restore our rich inheritance and power economic growth.
First published by ConservativeHome. Siobhan Baillie MP (Stroud) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.