This report examines the potential of nature-based solutions to contribute to Scotland’s net-zero emissions target.

Scotland is facing the twin challenges of a climate emergency and biodiversity crisis. Changing the way we use the land and sea is now essential to both store carbon and help society adapt to climate change. Doing so can also help to improve the state of nature, which is experiencing unprecedented threats. 

Nature-based solutions feature prominently in the global biodiversity agenda. Vegetation growth and healthy soils, as well as sea floor integrity, provide a crucial way of locking away carbon emissions. However, it is the additional multiple benefits unique to nature-based solutions – addressing biodiversity loss, and adaptation to locked-in climate change – that makes them such a crucial part of a net-zero strategy. These are widely regarded as ‘no-regret’ actions to address climate change, but the evidence base to support their direct impact is complex. As such, further work is required to understand their practical application in Scottish circumstances.

This study assesses evidence for the greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation potential of four nature-based solutions in Scotland (agroforestry, hedgerows, un-cultivated riparian buffer zones and the restoration of species-rich grasslands) and how these can help mitigate the impacts of climate change and reduce biodiversity loss. In addition, we provide a synthesis of the strength of evidence for including these as part of net-zero policy objectives and carbon codes.

This project set out to review the current state of knowledge on the potential for carbon sequestration in key Scottish upland open habitats. Upland soils play a vital role in regulating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in our environment. Scotland’s soils contain 2500-3500 Mt of carbon, much of which is located in upland soil environments. This is equivalent to more than 200 years of Scotland’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. The management of uplands and their soils will therefore be critical to achieving Scotland’s ambitious net-zero emissions target.

Despite the well-known potential of soils to store carbon, however, there is uncertainty as to the long-term stability of this carbon pool. Increasing temperatures, altered patterns of rainfall distribution, and changes in land use all influence this process and threaten to reduce soil carbon stocks.

This review identifies the key drivers of change and covers three upland habitats: upland dry heath, upland wet heath and upland grasslands, defined by vegetation communities. It assesses potential GHG fluxes and the impact on biodiversity within these habitats.

It found very limited information regarding impacts on soil carbon stocks or GHG emissions; studies giving a full balance sheet of ecosystem stocks and flows of carbon in response to environmental or management change were particularly scarce.

Key findings include:
  • Scotland’s soils contain around 2,500-3,500 Mt of soil organic carbon. The various mineral, organo-mineral and organic soils found under moorland, montane, and rough grassland contain around 45% of total Scottish soil organic carbon stock.
  • Soil organic carbon accounts for 90% of the carbon stocks in these habitats. Therefore, studies which only consider changes in carbon held within the vegetation severely under-estimate changes in total carbon stocks.
  • GHG emissions in open upland habitats in Scotland occur as a result of emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. 
  • There is some evidence from Scotland that Molinia grasslands contain large carbon stocks within the vegetation, which are reduced by grazing.
  • When upland soils are left bare after excessive grazing or burning, there is a significant increase in the risk of soil carbon loss due to erosion.
  • The impacts of future climate change on carbon stocks are complex and are likely to depend on current and future management, soil type and vegetation communities. They have not been well researched in the Scottish context: this is a substantial gap in knowledge.
  • The review found an important knowledge gap on the interactions of drivers on GHG emissions, carbon stocks and biodiversity.