Emily Davies reports on how hedges extract mass amounts of carbon dioxide but need to be maintained.
Photo by Nahil Naseer
The agriculture industry is both a carbon sink and a source of emissions. Farms in Britain currently constitute a hefty 10% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, only a tenth of this is actually carbon dioxide — which is considered to be the worst greenhouse gas, despite methane being the most potent — and more than half being methane.
Recently, a particular feature of farms has attracted a lot of attention: hedgerows. It’s something that rural residents see along roads and across swathes of fields and never think about – but why would they? It is unlikely that they know these hedgerows are home to over 2,000 species. It is even more unlikely that they know about the potential role of hedges in the pursuit of carbon neutrality.
Hedgerows and Carbon Storage
Hedges can capture carbon, generating what is called negative emissions. According to a study by the Environmental Research Letters, in scenarios where mitigating actions against global warming aren’t good enough, NET (negative emission technology) will need to be used to prevent devastating climate destruction by 2050.
However, this is about the natural carbon-absorbing greenery, not about technology. For 20 years, one new hedgerow can store up to the equivalent of 800kg of carbon per year per km, according to Hedgelink. In addition to acting as a carbon store, hedges have many benefits for supporting biodiversity and regeneration, such as:
Helping birds, bees and butterflies navigate across the landscape.
Extracting nutrients and pollutants out of water
Proving a home to many species: birds, mice, and bees among others
Prevents soil erosion by cutting down wind speed
However, as they need to be expanded and maintained, this requires money and work: it’s not just about the quantity of hedgerows, but their quality too. In England, only 42% hedgerows are in good condition, according to the most recent research (bear in mind this is from 2007) and this is mainly down to cutting them too much, too frequently. One method of maintaining hedges is known as ‘coppicing', a method which also produces wood fuel, a renewable energy source used in biomass burners and boilers.
In an interview with ITV, the National Farmers Union’s president also explained that the agriculture industry can't achieve carbon neutrality through hedges alone. Nevertheless, more hedges in the UK will help Britain move further towards its carbon net-zero target.
Regulations and Strategies
Organisations are aware of the importance of hedges: the UK Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 report advises that hedgerows should be extended by 40% as part of the plan to achieve carbon neutrality in the UK. Natural England, taking into account the biodiversity value of hedges, has pushed for them to be extended across the country.
The role of hedges isn’t revolutionary: in 1997 the ‘Hedgerows Regulations’ made removing hedgerows without permission from the Council in England and Wales illegal. More recently, the government included hedges in the ‘Biodiversity 2020’ strategy that builds on the Natural Environment White Paper and sets out biodiversity plans across the land, rivers, and sea.
Therefore, it is clear steps are being taken to improve the negative emission capability of Britain’s hedges, but this cannot be treated as a magical fix-all solution. Hedgerows can help build towards the carbon net-zero target, but in combination with other sustainable practices, like wind farms and solar panels — and not planning for a new coal mine, for example.
Article on a similar topic: The Future of Sustainable Farming in Post-Brexit Britain
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