Bring back the beavers – rewilding offers climate solutions beyond planting trees

May 22, 2023 | Blogs, Monthly Briefing

In the race to combat climate change, “nature-based climate solutions” have emerged as a key technique to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These solutions involve conserving or restoring ecosystems to enhance carbon sequestration. When corporates purchase carbon offsets, they are buying the right to emit carbon, by funding projects that draw sufficient carbon out of the atmosphere. Such projects include forest restoration or peatland conservation, or projects that prevent the release of more carbon dioxide, such as wetland protection or agroforestry schemes. These traditional approaches to carbon offsetting have gained traction, but have overlooked the potential of biodiversity projects.

A recent paper highlighted how rewilding – a conservation approach that involves restoring natural processes and species reintroduction – can contribute significantly to carbon sequestration, offering more innovative climate solutions. Biodiversity projects are sometimes seen as a separate issue from the climate crisis. However, the paper uncovers the dual benefit of enhanced carbon sequestration and biodiversity conservation that rewilding provides. Rewilding offers a holistic approach to saving our planet’s biodiversity through the large-scale restoration of ecosystems, allowing natural processes to occur, and reintroducing species essential for ecosystem function.

Through these conservation efforts, ecosystems can provide services such as coastal protection, pollination and, importantly, carbon sequestration. Animals play an essential role in carbon cycling in ecosystems through their behaviour. Wildebeest turn the Serengeti into a carbon sink through grazing, reducing wildfire risk, while musk oxen prevent tundra from melting by keeping soil compact, reducing the albedo effect. Investing in biodiversity projects for carbon offsetting tackles the need to reduce carbon emissions, but also helps address the global biodiversity decline.

Rainforests are particularly good at fixing carbon dioxide in the soil, because of their density. However, many countries have mismanaged this opportunity. The UK has sacrificed a significant amount of this potential, as over 99% of British temperate forest has been lost to deforestation, but there are encouraging signs that this decline could be arrested.

One such example is an initiative by a Cornish farm, which has led to the creation of a dedicated charity and a pioneering project set to triple Britain’s remaining temperate rainforest, using a mix of natural regeneration and tree planting, but also reintroducing Highland cattle, Cornish black pigs, beavers and ponies. Through rewilding, the farm capitalises on the principles of agroforestry, a farming technique where livestock are reared and crops grown in the forest. Although tree planting is taking place, most forest restoration will be achieved through natural regeneration, a process where seed-dispersing livestock are essential. The livestock are fundamental in enabling the site to achieve its full climate-mitigating potential.

The benefits of rewilding extend beyond carbon sequestration, and include the opportunity for landowners to diversify income streams. The farm offers free-range food production, but can also capitalise on carbon credits, protecting itself from subsidy cuts. The project hopes to show upland farmers that their land can be used to simultaneously produce food, restore nature and support wellbeing.

Such projects offer positive impact beyond just climate change mitigation. By holistically treating both biodiversity conservation and climate action, they demonstrate that rewilding can generate multiple gains, environmentally and socially.