Blog: The Clean Growth Strategy: What does decarbonisation mean for ecosystem services?

15 Dec 2017
By ADVENT PhD candidates

The sustainable decarbonisation of the economy is a crucial aspect of the UK’s commitment to mitigating climate change. It also provides a prime opportunity to display leadership under the Paris Agreement, particularly now that the current US administration has elected  to withdraw from involvement.

The UK Clean Growth Strategy began its life as a blueprint for delivering the UK’s Fifth Carbon Budget, but quickly developed into more of a strategic vision for clean energy and economic growth.

As a group of energy and environment PhD students working on the UKERC-affiliated ADVENT project (ADdressing Valuation of Energy and Nature Together), we ask: does the strategy adequately acknowledge the wider environmental and social impacts of decarbonisation, and what are the key risks and opportunities it poses for ecosystem services?

The environmental impacts of decarbonisation

The strategy stresses the importance of delivering increased economic growth whilst reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but it also considers the wider impact this may have on ecosystem services. Human wellbeing is underpinned by ecosystem services, the benefits provided by the natural environment, and the government is taking steps to ensure that these services are better accounted for in decision-making.

The Clean Growth Strategy presents significant opportunities to enhance ecosystem services, in particular the commitment to increase woodland planting and restore peatlands, actions which have been recommended by the Natural Capital Committee in the past. There is strong evidence that these actions will provide substantial benefits in terms of  carbon storage, recreation, water quality, flood management and biodiversity.

The magnitude of these benefits will, however, depend considerably on the locations chosen: for example, woodlands planted near towns and cities can generate much larger net societal benefits than those further away. Although specific details are lacking, the strategy’s reiterated commitments to increase the deployment of renewable energy technologies, and shift the transport sector towards ultra-low emission vehicles, present significant opportunities to improve UK  air quality.

What risks and opportunities does the strategy provide?

The strategy also includes policies that could pose risks to the natural environment. To meet the Fifth Carbon Budget, the trade-offs between different land uses will become increasingly acute.

Future energy demand is expected to be addressed to some extent by using biofuels to generate electricity, heat, and power transport. Converting large areas of land for biomass production will have major implications for food production, water use, biodiversity, recreation and carbon sequestration. Given that the UK currently imports much of its biomass, decisions made in the UK are likely to also have considerable ramifications overseas.

In light of this, the strategy’s aim “to see a near doubling of sustainable bioenergy used in the transport sector” raises serious questions over where this biomass will be sourced and how ‘sustainability’ will be defined. Energy crop production in the UK currently accounts for a small land area, but this could be expanded to meet UK energy demand whilst also providing co-benefits to the environment, such as increased carbon sequestration and improved water quality.

The impact of Brexit

The implications of Brexit for the natural environment are open to considerable debate. The replacement of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is identified by the strategy as an opportunity to “address climate change more directly by designing a new system to support the future of farming and the countryside, with a strong focus on delivering better environmental outcomes”. This is a positive indication of the government’s intention to enhance ecosystem services under a Brexit scenario, which must be backed up with action and a robust scientific evidence base if it is to be delivered.

The uncertainty surrounding Brexit represents a risk for ecosystem services too: the complexities involved in implementing the Clean Growth Strategy and replacing CAP are considerable. If resources are not available to implement these policies on the timetable required then crucial opportunities to protect and enhance the natural environment may be lost .

The Emissions Intensity Ratio

Although we welcome the rhetoric in this strategy, which moves away from purely focusing on greenhouse gas emissions to considering the wider environmental implications of decision-making, there is a concern that these details will be overlooked post-Brexit. The government unveiled a new metric to report progress against the ambitions set out in this strategy called the Emissions Intensity Ratio. Calculated as a ratio of the greenhouse gas emissions produced per unit of  GDP, this could potentially mask detrimental impacts to ecosystem services. We therefore encourage the government to not lose sight of the bigger picture and ensure they back interventions that provide win-wins for both carbon emission reductions and other ecosystem services.

Overall, the publicatlon of the strategy is a great step forward in setting out the potential long-term pathways for the UK’s transition to a low-carbon economy, whilst also considering wider environmental implications. However, the lack of detail on the proposed strategies, including geographically specific plans, means that it is difficult to fully assess the risks and benefits for ecosystem services.

Different trajectories for meeting the Fifth Carbon Budget in 2032 also have contrasting implications for social welfare and the environment. It is vital that decision-makers and academic researchers work closely together in the coming years to ensure that the risks and opportunities for the provision of ecosystem services are fully evaluated.


Gemma Delafield,  University of Exeter
Pip Roddis, University of Leeds
Seb Dunnett, University of Southampton
Caspar Donnison, University of Southampton
Alexandros Sfyridis, UCL
Theodoros Arvanitopoulos, UCL
Kathryn Logan, Aberdeen