Why we are turning to nature to help mitigate the damage of man-made climate change

It has been hard to escape the headlines - of burning islands, rising floods, and the "era of global boiling" having arrived.

That final phrase - a warning from UN Secretary General António Guterres - came as scientists said July 2023 was on track to be the hottest month ever recorded.

"Climate change is here, it is terrifying and it is just the beginning," he said, while separate analysis suggests July could be the hottest month in 120,000 years.

The effects have been all too easy to see. Temperatures in parts of the Mediterranean soared into the 40s and the hottest seawater ever recorded on the tip of Florida saw temperatures exceed 37.8C for two days in a row.

But as the challenges mount, so do ideas to tackle the problems caused by man-made climate change and for some, the inspiration comes from nature.

A wildfire on the Aegean Sea island of Rhodes, southeastern Greece. Credit: AP
  • Oyster beds to help with coastal erosion

Coastal erosion has long been an issue for the seaside communities in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex.

It is in the latter county that scientists have turned not to traditional concrete coastal defences, but molluscs.

Dr Michael Steinke from the University of Essex has been looking at how oyster beds around Mersea Island act as a natural sea defence.

"We refer to these oysters as being eco-system engineers, the material builds up and that of course builds structure," he said.

"You can imagine that when storm waves are rolling into Brightlingsea, it dampens the energy that hits the coast and can lead to coastal erosion and flooding."

  • Oysters indicate how clean the water is

And with recent stories about the amount of sewage being pumped into seas, the oysters also have a secondary benefit - they are also a way of indicating how clean the water is.

By studying the way they open their shells scientists can tell if are toxins present.

"Under the presence of toxins the behaviour changes, and we can see that on our sensors that there's been a change in behaviour, that tells us that this might be an area that is affected," said Dr Steinke.

"Knowing that, we can send someone out to take up water samples and do the more expensive analysis in the laboratory."

And work is also going on to understand how the molluscs can act as a natural water filtration - which in turn builds up the oyster bed, and protects the coastline further.

Oyster beds can be used to help with coastal erosion Credit: AP

Up the road in Shotley in Suffolk, farmer Richard Wrinch knows just how volatile this coastline is.

He believes that within 20 years large portions of his land will be underwater, so he plans to allow 100 acres of land flood to create tidal marshland, creating a natural flood plain and protecting other land.

  • Building homes with eco-friendly materials

It's not just the coastline that will have to adapt, but the built environment too.

A new study published in Nature Sustainability showed that the UK is one of the countries that will have to change the most radically to cool down buildings as climate change drives up the global average temperature.

Dr Nicole Miranda, lead author of the study, said: "In the northern hemisphere in Europe, the buildings are made to keep heat in.

"And so we are at risk at in the summertime, when heatwaves come or when higher temperatures in general come that we overheat our buildings."

Dr Miranda warned against not preparing for the rising heat and then later taking the easier option of installing air conditioning, which would be inefficient and only exacerbate the problem.

In Fakenham in Norfolk, one of the world's first cobbauge houses is being built. Credit: ITV News Anglia

That problem is being tackled in the East of England too: in Fakenham in Norfolk one of the world's first cobbauge houses is being built.

Based on a traditional technique used hundreds of years ago, it mixes traditional natural cob material and light earth to create a highly-insulated building that meets thermal and structural regulations.

The house will have a green roof to support biodiversity and compensate for the loss of green space.

Anthony Hudson of Hudson Architects Credit: ITV News Anglia

Anthony Hudson of Hudson Architects is one of the people behind the building, and explained the technique reduced the "embodied energy" of building materials - ie how much energy it takes to create them in the first place.

"We are getting all these materials quite locally; secondly they are natural materials; and thirdly they have amazing properties. It has lots of thermal mass and is fire resistant."

On average, it takes over 50 tonnes of CO2 to build a house in the UK using traditional masonry.

Around 40% of carbon emissions are a result of heating and powering buildings. So constructing in a carbon neutral way and creating buildings that operate with as few emissions as possible are vital in combating humans' impact on the environment.

Architects and builders are working on an international research project to train professionals and develop the method across Europe.

In Fakenham in Norfolk, one of the world's first cobbauge houses is being built. Credit: ITV News Anglia
  • Using peatland crops to filter and manage water

Not far away, on the Norfolk Broads, a new reedbed is being planted as part of a project looking into using peatland crops to naturally filter and manage water.

Andrea Kelly, environment policy adviser for the Broads Authority, said wetlands were a crucial habitat to preserve.

"They are stores of carbon, and they store and hold water rather than flushing it down into the rivers so prevent flooding. They are a great big sponge, really."

But this is also part of an ongoing experiment to see how wetland farming can be turned into a new economy. Crops such as reeds are being grown once again for thatching and reed mace for materials including insulation fibres.

There are hopes this could provide commercial opportunities too.

Ms Kelly said: "We grind down the reed plants into small particles, and with water and pressure we create amazing bonded fibres, great for insulation, great for building, fire resistant, anti-microbial, water repellent.

"There are people making really amazing garments from this."

Wetland crops could help farming in the Broads become more sustainable and generate other sources of income as the climate changes, and in doing so produce sustainable products that will help other industries become carbon neutral.

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