Countryside is key: the top five ways the countryside can tackle climate change

Avatar for Ally Davies
Avatar for Sam Keyte
By Ally Davies & Sam Keyte

Did you know that some of the most-loved features of the countryside not only look gorgeous and are brilliant for wildlife, but can actually address the climate emergency?

At CPRE, we’ve always known that the countryside is more than just green and pleasant land – it has terrific potential for actually tackling climate change. These green spaces that we all love and value can hold the key for huge steps forward in cutting carbon.

As the government makes plans, we’re making sure that we’re reminding them of this huge potential, which also holds ways to improve the economy, nature and our wellbeing. Great bang for their buck!

Read on for our top five ways that the countryside can help with carbon reduction for a low carbon future: greener, better and faster…

1. Hedging our bets

Here at CPRE, we’re always keen on ‘nature-based’ solutions to the climate crisis. This means working with and actually harnessing the power of the natural world – things like trees, oceans, wetlands – to suck emissions out of the air. And these approaches also help to boost biodiversity, allowing nature to thrive and so tackling the crisis in our wildlife too.

Planting trees, which of course take in carbon and release oxygen, is something you’ve probably heard talked about, and not surprisingly. We need loads more trees to be cracking on with absorbing carbon – 30,000 more hectares per year, to be precise. That’s 116 square miles, or three quarters the size of the Isle of Wight every year! And the government is nowhere near this level right now.

But CPRE are especially championing trees’ often-overlooked little friends, the hedgerow. Like trees, hedgerows suck carbon out of the air and store it in their trunks, roots and in the soil underground.

A bright yellow bird is visible above brown hedge plants
A male yellowhammer keeps watch over a Yorkshire hedgerow. Yellowhammer numbers have declined steeply as hedgerows have been lost, as they rely on them to make their nests away from predators.

They also have loads of other benefits, such as boosting biodiversity by making great wildlife habitats and reducing soil erosion. And of course, they’re already a part of our cultural heritage- we’re used to seeing them, they blend into our landscapes and look beautiful, especially with seasonal blooms.

We love hedgerows so much, in fact, that we work specifically on promoting them.

2. Restoring our soggy soils

Like hedgerows, peat might be one of those things you’ve never really noticed. Put simply, peat is soggy soil that’s developed over thousands of years. And guess what? Peat is really, really good at storing carbon – and better still, peatlands are essential habitats supporting lots of different wildlife.

A boggy pond with rich vegetation and grasses around it
A peat bog in Muckle Moss National Nature Reserve, Northumberland

Although there’s lots of peatland in England, we’ve not taken as good care of it as we should. It’s lovely and rich, so has become much-used as a fertiliser in horticulture. If you have a bag of compost in your shed or garden, chances are it has some peat in.

This is bad news for peatlands. To fertilise our gardens, it’s dug up from the ground either in the UK or abroad and shipped to us. It can take about a year to form just a millimetre of peat – so when it’s dug up in this way, it has no time to reform and replenish. Plus, peat likes to stay wet, and when it dries out it releases the carbon stored inside into the atmosphere, making climate change worse.

'It can take about a year to form just a millimetre of peat – so when it’s dug up in this way, it has no time to reform and replenish.'

In fact, rather than our making use of their amazing carbon storage abilities, we’re often burning these areas to clear them and actually releasing more carbon! Burnt peatlands are losing an estimated 350,000 tonnes of CO2 annually – a scary amount. We know that lovely healthy peatlands can form a huge part in carbon reduction, so we’re asking the government for peatlands to be restored, rewetted and well cared for.

Want to become an expert on all things peat? Our explainer sums up why it’s so essential in cutting carbon.

3. Buses and trains and bikes, oh my!

We all like the idea of better public transport near to us, wherever we live. But we see some brilliant opportunities in rural transport that will be a win, win, win – for the climate, for health and for the economy!

We know we need to move away from cars, but right now the government is planning to spend a lot of money (£27bn, as announced March 2020) on building more roads – which makes it inevitable we’ll see more car use and more carbon emitted. We know, though, that if we can just shift towards more public transport instead, the rewards will be huge.

A woman stands at a rural bus stop with a baby in a sling
Better public transport in rural areas is a win for the economy, for health and for the climate | Lolostock / Shutterstock

A July 2020 report points out that investing in this could generate more than 230,000 jobs. And if we shift as little as 2% of the miles currently taken by car to walking and cycling, we could see health benefits worth over £2.5 billion per year by 2030. The opportunities are huge, especially in rural areas where car reliance can be unavoidable at the moment – and we’re working hard to tell the government and promote this chance for a better way to be.

4. Communities’ energies making community energy

You might not have heard of community energy before, but the concept is simple: these are renewable energy projects proposed, designed, and owned by local people.

Naturally, we at CPRE are keen on renewable energies instead of carbon-emitting fossil fuels, but for us, the gold standard within these is always community-led schemes. Community projects allow people to access the financial benefits directly. The energy produced is cleaner and cheaper and the projects can create local jobs. Better still, any profits can go back into community projects (some examples from our favourite projects, for example, put funds into wildlife ponds, educational centres and village playgrounds).

'Community projects allow people to access the financial benefits directly. The energy produced is cleaner and cheaper and the projects can create local jobs.'

And the countryside is a great place for these projects, with chances to make close-knit communities even closer.

5. Farming for the future

It could be easy to disconnect our farming and food systems from a warming planet, but that would be to miss a trick. The way that farms are run can open up huge possibilities for carbon capture – and happily again, these are also great for nature!

With over 70% of the UK used for farming, there’s scope to make a big difference by moving to more sustainable and nature-friendly methods of farming. One of the ways farmers can do this is by integrating trees (yep, them again) within their farms. This is called agroforestry and has all kinds of benefits. The additional trees of course capture carbon themselves, as we’ve discussed, but they can also provide fodder for animals, shade and shelter from the elements and help to create corridors for wildlife to move across and through different landscapes.

'With over 70% of the UK used for farming, there's scope to make a big difference by moving to more sustainable and nature-friendly methods of farming.'

Farming in this way can also improve the health of the soil – another element of the countryside that we might barely notice but which, when healthy, can actually lock in carbon (and of course make for the best possible crops, destined for our tummies). And, better yet, it can actually be more productive and more sustainable than the big monoculture farms, meaning we can produce more of our food on less land.

We’re big fans of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, who bring together farmers wanting to work sustainably and in ways that support nature. It all adds up to mean that farming becomes an active part of solving climate change. We’re in awe of the farmers making these changes!

Like the sound of these? You can get involved and do your bit to fight climate change too by joining or donating to us. July 2020 saw us launch a new plan for what needs to happen to both protect our rural areas from the impact of climate change and also maximise their huge potential to make things better. Be a part of the change now.

Grandmother, mother and child touch large tree
Our countryside is packed full of features that we might take for granted - but that can actively tackle the climate emergency Lolostock / Shutterstock