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This might just look like grass, but it has the power to absorb a load of our carbon emissions – CNN

Oct 25th, 2021

But while we are looking up at the treetops for climate solutions, some campaigners are urging the world to look down, where another answer lies -- right under our feet.

"Whether you look at the Serengeti, the Cerrado in Brazil, whether you look at what's left of the prairies in North America or the steppes of Mongolia -- every single one of our major, iconic grassland habitats is under threat at the moment," Ian Dunn, chief executive of the British conservation organization Plantlife, told CNN.

There's also plenty of it in the United Kingdom, which will host world leaders and climate negotiators in just over a week at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. Among several items on the agenda is how to protect forests and plant more trees to help slash global emissions.

While leaders meet in the Scottish city, Plantlife is working to restore more than 100,000 hectares of meadows, including one on the other side of the United Kingdom, in the southern English county of Kent.

The Ranscombe Farm Nature Reserve looks just like your typical patch of English countryside, with its soft rolling hills and grazing cattle. The grass here looks ordinary, browned in patches from the autumn weather. But come spring, the rare orchids, bellflowers and rock roses will bloom in a celebration of this grassland's biodiversity.

Restoring species-rich ecosystems like this takes time, said Ben Sweeney, Ranscombe Farm's manager, who has been working on this grassland since 2010.

"It will take a couple of decades," he said.

Ranscombe Farm protects not only grasslands but also woodlands, rough grazing pastures and crop fields for rare plants.

Sweeney explains that just like with an animal sanctuary, Ranscombe Farm nurtures rare plants in small sections of the reserve, where they are thriving, and can hopefully grow and spread out into bigger habitats soon.

But even after years of careful management, rangers have not been able to reverse all the impacts that farming and land degradation have had on the site.

That concerns activists, because grasslands not only store carbon but also serve as a buffer for extreme weather and help prevent soil erosion. Their roots hold together light soil, and the ground cover prevents erosion from wind and water. These habitats help with natural flood management by holding water after extreme weather events, then releasing it gradually.

The loss of grasslands also threatens the important species that rely on them, like bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

"But they are pretty much ignored or have been ignored in many sustainability policies," said soil expert and ecology professor Richard Bardgett, the study's lead researcher.

Your diet could be linked to grassland destruction

A global increase in demand for meat and dairy products, as well as soy, is putting pressure on grasslands.

In China, vast expanses of grasslands are in a "state of ecological crisis," according to scientists, caused by overgrazing of the land. Meanwhile, in the United States, the expansion of farmland has led to the prairies of the Great Plains losing an average four football fields every minute, according to a WWF report published in 2020.

While grassland protection is a global concern, there are growing expectations for the UK to show climate leadership ahead of COP26.

Campaigners are disappointed with the omission of grasslands as a nature-based solution in the government's Net Zero Strategy, which is being seen as a potential blueprint for other nations' climate roadmaps.

"The importance of grasslands in carbon capture, improved biodiversity, sustainable food production, water management and societal wellbeing continues to be missed in this report and in government policy," Dunn said.

"We need to be working on a mosaic of habitats."

Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts, said that the government's Net Zero Strategy had significant gaps and that its authors, from the government, "don't seem to have fully recognized the role that nature can play."

There's little new for nature in the strategy, he said.

"Instead, old policies are being recycled -- and it's not enough."

The land restoration policies will rely on a modest $880 million (640 million) Nature for Climate fund, which had already been announced in the Conservative government's election manifesto, Bennett points out.

A Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) spokesperson told CNN it was protecting grasslands at some reserve sites in England, launching a pilot scheme for more sustainable farming practices, and giving more than $55 million (40 million) in grants for nature recovery projects.

"Biodiversity loss and climate change are global problems requiring global solutions," the spokesperson said.

But Defra did not comment when asked whether grasslands would be discussed at COP26 and sent quotes around the importance of ending illegal logging in forests as a nature-based climate solution.

They urge "government ministers to use the opportunity of COP26 in Glasgow to seek international recognition and protections for species-rich grasslands, to lead by example in taking action to mitigate the effects of climate change and increase biodiversity and to ensure that those areas of natural beauty are preserved for future generations to enjoy."

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This might just look like grass, but it has the power to absorb a load of our carbon emissions - CNN

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