Harnessing Greater Manchester's Natural Capital
Could Salford's 10,000 year old peat bogs be set to play a major role in Greater Manchester's push to become a low carbon conurbation? Anne Selby, chair of the Nature Capital Group, certainly thinks so. She believes that in these austere times, harnessing the region's natural capital to raise money for it's own protection makes perfect sense.
Although around half of the peat, to a depth of around 10m, has already been extracted, environmentalists believe that what remains of Salford's 10 sq mile 'rainforest' could still play a vital role in carbon sequestration.
Environmentalists believe that what remains of Salford's 10 sq mile 'rainforest' could still play a vital role in carbon sequestration.
Selby envisages a scheme that encourages businesses to off-set their own carbon emissions by paying to the save the bogs on their door step, and thinks it could be an attractive proposition for companies looking to off-set in the UK, rather than signing up to an international scheme.
"If you invest in the peat bogs, not only are you stopping the continued extraction, which is effectively throwing carbon up into the air, but you are also rewetting them and starting to absorb carbon, and so you are using natural processes to help with the whole climate change agenda," she explains.
Selby is also chief executive of the Lancashire, Manchester and N Merseyside Wildlife Trusts, and the trusts have carried out rigorous scientific testing to show that this form of sequestration really does work, she says. "We're not just talking about the odd tonne but hundreds of thousands of tonnes if we can get it right.
"I do think there are opportunities to get more investment from companies who want to offset their carbon into things like this."
A network of 48 Local Nature Partnerships was set up across the UK as part of the Natural Environment White Paper 2011. They involve a broad range of local organisations and businesses and Greater Manchester's LNP, the Natural Capital Group, is made up of many of the usual suspects, including local authorities, British Waterways, and United Utilities.
Its key role is to make sure that the value of local environments and ecosystems, and the services they provide to the economy and local people, are taken into account when planning decisions are made. But while the law states that LNRs must be consulted, it falls short of detailing the levels of consultation, or whether their views need to be acted upon.
Funding, or lack of it, is more of a clear cut issue, and Selby pulls few punches when she says they (the LNPs) are: "incredibly under-resourced in the way that Government set us up.
It's like there's a huge disconnect and I can only put it down to the fact that when you're in a knee jerk reaction about an austere economy, the traditional thing is to think these are the type of things that don't count.
"It's like there's a huge disconnect and I can only put it down to the fact that when you're in a knee jerk reaction about an austere economy, the traditional thing is to think these are the type of things that don't count, and environmentalist are just a terrible brake on economic growth… It's almost unreconstructed economic development."
However, she is upbeat about her role in Manchester. "I do think that economic development is seen in a broader context in Greater Manchester. They get it, they understand it, whereas in other areas you can be banging your head against a brick wall."
By being part of GM's high profile Low Carbon Hub, Selby also believes the group can have real influence: "There's an essential understanding… that environmental economy has a real value and needs to be thought about."
Threats to biodiversity
Yet Greater Manchester's biodiversity is also under continual threat from farming, pollution and development, says Selby, and protecting the region's myriad of green spaces remains a key objective for the group - although it's a challenge that is becoming increasingly difficult.
Many of the original sites surveys are now over ten years old and desperately need updating, she explains, otherwise they can easily be overturned by developers in court. But with funding cuts, and far fewer trained field officers, this new data just isn't available.
But she hides her frustration well. "Can you make a difference without any money? If you have a group of willing people, I think you can," she says.
Times are hard and whisper it, but Selby is even prepared to consider environmentalism's current bête noir, biodiversity offsetting, as a way of protecting habitats. The controversial idea, which is currently being piloted at various sites around the UK, would allow developers to compensate for destroying a habitat by re-creating it elsewhere.
"As a movement the Wildlife Trusts have been jittery about it for some time, because if abused it would be a licence to trash," she concedes. But if used properly, she thinks it could play a role. "Certain things like ancient woodland cannot be replaced, so they mustn't be put up for discussion, but habitats like wetlands are quite quick to recreate themselves," she says.
Selby is hopeful that there will be a move away from the fractious status quo that so often sees economists lined up on one side, environmentalists on the other.
Ultimately, Selby is hopeful that there will be a move away from the fractious status quo that so often sees economists lined up on one side, environmentalists on the other, and that people will see that the natural world has both intrinsic and economic value.
"There is a real determination," she says. "Even in a very resource scarce environment we have been taken seriously and slotted on to one of the top tables – there is the understanding that the environment is a key part of the economy in Manchester, and I think we’ve got a really good platform."
Mark Hillsdon is a freelance writer with a passion for nature and the great outdoors. A regular contributor to magazines such as Coast and CountryFile, he also writes on sustainability for the Guardian, and the occasional travel piece for the Independent. On Sunday. He has also been writing on all things Mancunian since first getting off the Euston train as a student nearly 30 years ago.