CIEEM Autumn Conference - Part 1: Progressing Nature-Based Solutions in the UK & Ireland

Christopher Doyle

18th January 2023

Last November, I once again crossed the Irish Sea to the UK for the annual CIEEM Autumn Conference, this time to Edinburgh, which was a significantly colder experience than the previous year’s Bristol conference. The theme was “Delivering a Nature Positive, Carbon Negative Future” and the talks focused on the links between nature restoration and carbon sequestration, from well-planned, managed systems to low-intervention rewilding. 

A recurring theme was nature based solutions (the acronym NBS was thrown around alot before I figured out that they weren’t referring to the National Bank of Scotland). NBSs are a way of utilising natural processes to adapt to social and environmental challenges. They are often discussed in the same breath as ecosystem services, the difference being that while the latter may refer to the ability of a riparian woodland to slow the release of water from land into a river system, the related NBS would be then creating or expanding a woodland upstream of an urban area to reduce flooding. There can be some hesitation at implementing NBSs as, like all natural systems and materials, they can be difficult to measure when compared to a human-made alternative. Local authorities can be slow to opt for them, though as an increasing number of global NBS projects continue to prove themselves, they may become the norm in time.

One of the key messages to come out of the conference is that funding opportunities for conservation are growing. To date, the majority of large scale projects have been state or semi-state funded, however with the advent of carbon accreditation (and potentially in the future, biodiversity accreditation) and increasing ESG concerns, more and more private investment and venture capital are being made available to either offset adverse impacts of a business or to help create a “green” image for the investor.

Like the last time, I came away with a sense that in some ways, the UK appears to be much further ahead than Ireland when it comes to nature conservation. For example, their mandatory requirement for a 10% Biodiversity Net Gain  over a 30 year period on all construction projects greater than or equal to a single room dwelling means that, in theory, continued development will lead to continued habitat creation and protection. They are, however, an older country, and have a longer history of land management for estates, hunting etc. and their nature conservation organisations are thus well established and have more funding to throw at environmental projects. 

On the other hand, the UK was far from a leader with regards to European biodiversity targets before Brexit, and now their government is pushing to sunset EU legislation at the end of 2023, a concern voiced many times over the two day event. It would mean that the likes of the Habitats and Birds Directives, and subsequent Natura Network areas, would no longer be recognised by law. While they do have their own protected sites and species, it would mean an end to oversight from Europe, allowing the UK to set their own conservation targets, which may not be in line with the rest of the continent.

Ireland has a lot of challenges to face but our relatively small size puts us in a position to adapt quickly under the wing of the EU. These types of multidisciplinary conferences are important for all of us working in research and industry, as we can learn from our neighbours, see what they are doing well and adapt it to our own situations. As ecologists in Ireland, we have the opportunity to explore ideas that have been tried and tested in other countries and become big fish in a relatively small pond. As those at the forefront of implementing nature conservation and climate mitigation in the construction and land management sectors, I think we have the responsibility to be leaders within the sustainability space and to turn information into knowledge that we share both in our professional and personal lives.

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