Climate change and the National Trust: weathering change from our founding to the present day

As an organisation that will soon celebrate its 125th anniversary, we’ve weathered some significant change over the years. However, the impacts of a changing climate are unlike any we have dealt with before. They pose the biggest long-term threat to the places that we care for and last week’s warnings from the IPPC make for sober reading.

From erosion at the coast, to properties closing during extreme weather events, to high rainfall overwhelming guttering that has never before struggled, climate change is already having an impact on the 20,000 built structures that we look after, and on people’s enjoyment of them.

It could also affect our ability to deliver our ambitious plans for nature. Wildlife is already being affected by climate change, from shifting ranges to poor breeding during extreme weather events. Climate change needs to be front of mind as we work to help restore nature and we need to adapt our plans to this.

Bassenthwaite Lake during flooding of Borrowdale Valley, Cumbria. National Trust Images/John Malley

Last week we received the stark warning from the world’s leading scientific body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that we can’t afford for world temperatures to rise more than 1.5 degrees. They have already gone up by 1 degree.

The previously agreed safe limit was 2 degrees, but scientific evidence now shows that the impacts worldwide at 2 degrees (on people, on coral reefs, on small island states, on food production, on biodiversity) are much worse than at 1.5 degrees.

Despite these extremely concerning warnings, there is some good news

First, there is still time (just about) to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees. It involves the world reducing emissions to ‘net zero’ (this means a complete balance between the emissions released by human activity and those absorbed by oceans and the land) by the middle of the century. Any overshoot of 1.5 degrees will bear a heavy financial cost and will make it much harder to adapt.

Second, on Monday (as part of the launch of Great Green Britain and Northern Ireland week) the UK Government asked the Committee on Climate Change to provide formal advice on how and when the UK could move to a ‘net zero’ target (the current target, set by the Climate Change Act, is for an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050). This is welcome news, although the Government does seem to be potentially postponing action by ruling out changes to their plans to tackle emissions before 2032.

Finally, one of the best ways to reduce emissions is by protecting and restoring natural systems like forests, woodlands, wetlands and peatlands. These habitats can store and absorb significant amounts of carbon. A report last year for The Nature Conservancy suggests that so-called ‘land-based’ emissions will make a significant contribution to keeping global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees or below.

Solar panels at Sutton Hoo, East of England.

How we’re playing our part

We’ve made significant strides in deploying renewable energy across our estate. This week we’re celebrating our 50th renewable installation through our Renewable Energy Investment Programme. This addition of Greenburn Hydro, in the South Lakes, means that in the last 3 years over 13,500,000 kWh of fossil fuel energy has been converted to renewable sources at Trust properties. Over the five years of the programme we’ve generated over 23,500,000 kWh of electricity through these renewable installations, enough to power a town of 5,875 homes each year. The 50 large-scale installations funded through the programme join over 250 other installations around our places.  

Today, our Fit for the Future Network is holding its annual Harvest event bringing together hundreds of practitioners who are pushing the boundaries to create a sustainable, climate-friendly future for their organisations, their sectors and the UK as a whole. Fit for the Future is an environmental sustainability network with over 100 charities, heritage organisations, cultural venues, public sector organisations and more in its membership. By collaborating and sharing knowledge, network members are becoming climate-friendly, adaptive and resilient.

As well as renewable energy, we at the National Trust can play a role in nature-based solutions to climate change. We’ve been looking after natural places since our early days – our oldest nature reserve Wicken Fen, was donated to us in 1901. Today, these habitats have more meaning than ever as places that are not only crucial for wildlife but that can help as we all face the challenge of tackling climate change and limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees.

Our Strategy commits us to creating 25,000 ha of new Priority Habitat (including moorland, wetlands and woodlands) which will not only sequester carbon, but also deliver at the same time significant improvements in nature on our land: wins for nature, people and the climate.

With the IPCC’s report clearly warning that across the world we need to cut carbon pollution as much as possible, as fast as possible, there’s obviously much to do to limit the catastrophic impact of a changing climate.

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