Updated February 2023
Underlying the discussions about carbon levels and energy efficiency is another, arguably much more important issue that tends to take second place in both policy and activism. The issue is that of healthy habitats. It is healthy soil that provides the ability to grow healthy food. Healthy river and stream catchments yield a regular supply of healthy water. Healthy peatlands, oceans and woodlands all play an invaluable role in providing atmospheric gaseous exchange; in other words healthy air to breathe. Conversely, without healthy habitats on a global scale, our basic survival requirements are becoming severely undermined.
Note that these examples are just in relation to a single species, to us humans. Healthy habitats are absolutely crucial for the health of all of the species that live within those habitats. Our own divorce from the natural world is such that we can pretend that we don’t actually live fully immersed in these habitats ourselves. In actual fact we do. We are inextricably interconnected at both local and global levels to the places in which we live; and this planet, our common home. Other species can’t even pretend. Healthy habitats are where they life, where they sleep, where they hunt and feed and forage, where they find company and companionship and courtship. Who are we as a single species to decimate their homes?
Through the narrow metric of carbon budgets, healthy habitats are also invaluable. Carbon forms the foundational molecules of life on this planet. As such it is present in abundance where there is life in abundance. Thus carbon dioxide from the air is stored in solid form in all manner of healthy habitats. The two habitats we most associate with carbon here in Ireland are woodlands and peatlands. In these places it is very visible that when you remove the habitat, or degrade its health, you remove the carbon stores and convert them to atmospheric carbon dioxide again. Other habitats undergo exactly the same basic process. Oceans, soils, riparian wetlands, scrublands and healthy wild grasslands (with the full suite of flora and fauna present) all store carbon and thus help to reduce global atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Something that is becoming increasingly evident is that climate change is more than just about carbon. Floods and droughts, temperature extremes, storms and forest fires all have multiple causes. Climatic system breakdown is one of these, but another, arguably more important one, is the health of natural habitats. Remove riparian wetlands and not only do you interfere with global carbon balances, but you also directly disrupt the capacity of the catchment to regulate the hydrological balance. Thus flooding and drought can both become more prevalent. Clear woodlands and not only carbon and the same flooding/drought challenges are at issue, but over a large enough area the biotic pump action that trees perform becomes disrupted. Thus by clearing coastal forest cover along the perimeter of continents, the interior loses the rainfall that was brought by successive evapotranspirative cycles. In this way the entire ecosystem process that had kept interior rainforest habitat intact breaks down. Not necessarily due to climate or temperature per se, but due to direct encroachment into the health of the habitat that keeps the biological processes in a functioning homeostatic state.
In this living planetary system, carbon, temperatures, habitats and water are all inextricably linked. Happily, when we protect habitats and keep them healthy, or when we regenerate habitats from a degraded state to a wilder, healthier state, what tends to follow are the undoubted benefits of climatic regulation, carbon sequestration, water purification and hydrological balance. If we focus on carbon as the sole metric of interest, we have every potential to continue on our current trajectory of seemingly endless encroachment into natural habitat space. I’m sure that human ingenuity can build carbon capture machines at great expense to do the work that trees and bogs already do for free, but that won’t address the myriad of other interrelated issues that besiege us. Protecting and restoring healthy habitats requires a commitment to give the natural world some space at a table that has been completely preoccupied with economic growth. It is an essential part of the wider process of moving towards planetary health and the health of all of the systems that give us the means to live. If that isn’t sufficiently compelling, consider that it’s also a lot more beautiful than a factory-built world that may try ever harder at ever greater costs to replace the roles that healthy habitats provide.
It is time to embrace a broader appraisal of climate health than simply measuring carbon balances. Perhaps it is time to take the easy route, the clearly visible route, the hitherto somewhat strangely unpopular route, and do the very straightforward work of restoring habitats on a grand scale in Ireland and throughout the world. Step one of this process is to protect all existing intact wild spaces. Secondly we can restore habitats on a grand scale. This involves the restoration of crucial wetland and woodland habitats as well as rebuilding healthy soils in all of our farmland – the microhabitat that spreads across the length and breadth of the land. Funding of this work is crucial, along with a clear appraisal and amendment of policies and legislation that currently stands in the way of such work.
The wonderful thing about working with habitats as a climate measure is that the results are visible almost immediately. Whereas carbon savings offer only abstract feedback images of graphs and charts; habitat restoration immediately provides beautiful places to visit, living trees and other plants and animals to watch and enjoy, as well as tangible, recognisable benefits for flood control, drought resilience, hydrological regulation in rivers and streams, more birdsong, sweeter air and cleaner water.
Now is an excellent time to run with a habitat project in your local area; to explore possibilities and examine solutions and implement measures to let things grow and be and thrive in all their diverse beauty. Whether this means calling a halt to habitat encroachment on a little or large scale, or restoring degraded conditions, or rewilding some land in your care, the options are as endless as the number of species as yet unnamed. Perhaps counting carbon has got too abstract. Perhaps it’s time to love the many lifeforms that are made up of this adaptable element and to help life thrive in all its forms.
- Makarieva, Anastassia & Gorshkov, Victor. (2010). The Biotic Pump: Condensation, atmospheric dynamics and climate. International Journal of Water. 5. 365-385. 10.1504/IJW.2010.038729.
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Féidhlim Harty is an environmental consultant and writer. His company, FH Wetland Systems, established in 1996, offers designs and guidance on waterway repair and rewilding, eco-friendly wastewater treatment training and education, and holistic land-use management for catchment protection and regeneration. His most recent book is Towards Zero Waste – How to Live a Circular Life.