If you are reading this in the UK or Ireland, you are within 70 miles of the sea, and in most cases, much less. Our spectacular coastline is testimony to the value of nature for nature’s sake. We all have our favourite beauty spots, in my case, the North Antrim coast at White Park Bay and the nearby Giant’s Causeway.
The thin strip of earth between the sea and mainland around our islands offers much more than the memorable seasides from childhood. Our mangrove forests, salt marshes, seagrass meadows, and even coral, bring a necklace of climate and non-climate benefits. They harbour ecosystems to sequestrate carbon. They protect us from storms and flooding. They provide a range of essential biodiversity benefits.
In terms of carbon storage, our most obvious allies are the lush seagrass meadows, with their myriad plants living in shallow coastal waters. Some of these flowers store carbon even faster than tropical rainforests. With high biomass retention in their roots, carbon is captured for decades, and centuries if sediments are undisturbed. The meadows are also home to rare species, including the magical seahorses we learn about at school.
Unfortunately, 90% or more of our seagrass meadows in the UK are heavily impaired or lost, the dwindling stock now confined to a few places, like Lindisfarne. Thankfully, local action groups are now springing up to reverse this trend, such as the Dale Bay project on the Pembrokeshire coast.
Mangrove shrubs and salt marsh plants thrive close to our great British estuaries and riverbanks, offering further natural storage of carbon. Coastal saltmarshes comprise the vegetated parts of intertidal mudflats, lying between high-water neap and spring tides. Estuaries, where saltwater meets rainwater, offer rich benefits if conserved, not least as nature’s nurseries for the marine food from which we benefit.
Our personal coastal beauty spots help to remind us that we are part of something much greater. Today, enhancing nature as part of our response to climate change and other environmental threats receives less attention than it should.
Alas, again the story is that we wantonly destroy this natural capital with its economic benefits for the current and future generations. Since medieval times, many salt marshes have been reduced by land claim, drained at a large cost to wildlife, and even a loss of peat, a simply superb store of carbon.
Coral on the seabed is perhaps not traditionally associated with the UK, but we have our cold-water jewels off the North of Scotland. The carbon cycle associated with corals is a complex balance of photosynthesis and respiration, with an uncertain net carbon impact. However, these corals provide a further rich habitat for aquatic life.
Our personal coastal beauty spots help to remind us that we are part of something much greater. Today, enhancing nature as part of our response to climate change and other environmental threats receives less attention than it should. We focus on government and corporate promises of Net Zero, technological progress, and hope the great financial centres will allocate capital appropriately to save us.
Of course, government and corporate commitment is critical to defeat the climate threat, as is industrial innovation and ethical finance. However, there are other answers where we can all play a part. We can find a neighbouring wildlife trust or act as a local volunteer to support our natural inheritance. Working together, we can defeat Mark Carney’s "tragedy of the horizon", harmonising values and value as we allocate our individual time and money.
That, in turn, can drive care in how we vote, the companies we support with our savings, and indeed help to generate a spirit of discovery, using science to augment our natural capital rather than to destroy it. Ensuring the sustainability of our planet is ultimately down to you and me. Remember that next time you go down to the flung spray and the blown spume, as Masefield might have put it.
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