The Environment Agency’s (EA) national plan, eMission2030, sets out its commitment to reach net zero carbon by 2030. As part of this plan, the EA aims to reduce its emissions by 45% by 2030, and to responsibly offset the remaining emissions through land use changes and other approaches.
Natural ecosystems are impressively effective at absorbing carbon dioxide, storing it in soils, sediment and vegetation. Arup’s climate and sustainability experts assessed whether it would be possible for the EA to meet its emissions targets by promoting greater carbon uptake potential (sequestration) through land use change interventions on its estate. Covering 2,933 hectares of land, we analysed the EA’s landholdings in Yorkshire and North East England to create a quantitative picture of current carbon sequestration, and to identify interventions that could improve natural habitats while absorbing more carbon. Restoring these natural environments will not only support the EA in achieving its net zero aims, but will also enhance biodiversity to help tackle the climate crisis.
250 % additional improvement in carbon sequestration above baseline levels for existing land use
2,933hectares of Environment Agency land assessed in total
>22,100individual 50x50m land units analysed
Unlocking carbon reductions
Our evidence-based approach measured the current carbon intensity of the EA’s different land types to determine a baseline on which our carbon absorption improvements could be framed. Our analysis showed that the EA could potentially improve the current carbon sequestration of the land by up to 350% in Yorkshire and North East England through various land use interventions. Around 50% of the potential improvement in carbon sequestration would be provided by the creation of new wetland habitats and 20% would be derived from a mixture of coniferous and deciduous tree planting.
Our afforestation interventions included the direct planting of woodland and the support of natural colonisation – or hybrid approaches between the two. Owing to the EA’s large agricultural landholdings, the most common intervention that we identified was regenerative agriculture, which involved increasing vegetation coverage, reducing grazing, and introducing crop rotations.
Beyond peatland and agriculture, other categories of interventions were considered such as floodplain restoration, re-establishing vegetation, and rewetting drained vegetation. For wetlands, saltmarshes and other aquatic land types, a host of restorative interventions were identified to sequester carbon and increase biodiversity, including restoring flood plains and modifying river channels.
Arup have responded fantastically to our brief, developing a replicable methodology to help us to understand our current carbon baseline and what we could achieve across our land holdings. This work will be invaluable in helping to develop our future strategy.” Andrew Coen Project Executive, Environment Agency
Comprehensive digital mapping of interventions
Drawing on integrated data from the EA and open sources, we examined the land’s different habitats using digital tools to better understand its context and features. This meant that we could consider other factors such as ecological character to assess the wider suitability and benefits of the proposed land use changes. To this end, we created a digital model to visualise these alongside the data that we collected. This enabled us to visually communicate the suitability of the land and the potential interventions. By mapping out the landholdings, we were able to display the spatial constraints faced by these interventions, which increased the robustness of our carbon sequestration projections.
Working in collaboration with the EA, we created a methodology for estimating the carbon intensity of the land. To demonstrate the scale of change required, we created multiple scenarios showing different possibilities to absorb carbon and reduce emissions. This approach provided the EA with a detailed overview of the strategies that it could take to achieve its goals, while also enabling us to estimate the effectiveness of the potential land use changes.
Achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions is just one way that we will address the threat of climate change. Biodiversity loss poses another significant risk for the future health of our planet and society. Our analysis examined the wider benefits of the proposed land use changes, including air quality improvements, biodiversity gains, noise reduction, and increased recreational space.
From regional to national
Our successful carbon absorption assessment methodology in Yorkshire and North East England will now be implemented on a national scale. As part of this expanded scope, our team will assess all of the EA’s landholdings – equating to a total of 16,612 hectares – to better understand their current carbon intensity and to inform its future sequestration strategy. This second phase will set the foundations for developing their strategy to deliver scalable projects that restore habitats and increase carbon uptake, while also enhancing biodiversity and community amenity – all of which will drive the organisation’s aim to reach net zero.