Unlocking natural capital for Essex Net Zero
A Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund (NEIRF) project scoping four pilot habitats for Essex County Council
The Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund (NEIRF) is a UK government scheme that provides grants of up to £100,000 to environmental groups, local authorities, businesses and other organisations to help them develop nature-based initiatives to attract private investment. Essex County Council (ECC), is one of the largest local authorities in the UK, with a population of 1.4 million. With over 60% of its county comprised of farmland, it sought to capitalise on this opportunity, and partnered with Downforce Technologies and environmental financial consultancy, Finance Earth, to implement the Essex Net Zero Innovation Futures project. In doing so, it not only aimed to unlock private and public investment in natural capital assets and ecosystem services at four pilot sites, but progress its ambitions of achieving carbon neutrality and having 100% of its farmland adopt sustainable stewardship practices by 2050. However, to achieve this, it was critical that ECC could cost-effectively map the carbon and biodiversity potential of the areas, provide the data to track habitat changes, and create a solid business case for investors.
Building a case for a greener future
To kick off the project, four pilot sites were selected, each representing different habitats and land uses in the coastal and upper catchment areas. The pilot aimed to develop natural capital projects generating a range of ecosystem services, covering carbon, biodiversity, and water quality. This ambitious scheme planned to deliver 350ha of sustainable farming and create or improve habitats including woodlands, meadows, grassland, wetland and rewilded areas.
The project is easily scalable across the Essex Climate Focus Area (1,217km2), the whole of Essex, and the entirety of the UK. As such, benchmarking and reporting are vital to create an investment case and to test interest in supporting these green spaces and purchasing ecosystem services.
The pilot sites chosen were:
Spains Hall Estate - a large historical estate with arable land plus natural habitats and rewilded areas.
Wildfell - a former farming estate, acquired with the aim to promote rewilding and habitat creation and restoration, as well as meadow & hedgerow restoration.
Braxted Park Estate – a mix of farmland and recreational parkland. The estate is moving away from traditional farming and is actively pursuing biodiversity and carbon offsetting opportunities.
Abbots Hall Farm - one of the largest estuarine complexes in East Anglia, currently a nature reserve with the potential for huge biodiversity uplift.
Digitally scoping natural projects
Through the use of Downforce Technologies’ data fusion and modelling platform, a digital twin for each site was created, providing a baseline and historical measurements for soil and above-ground vegetation, carbon fluxes, carbon sequestration and realisable carbon potential. Overall, 67 hectares of woodland carbon projects were identified, with the opportunity to sequester 24,000 tons of CO2e over a 100-year period as well as 211 ha of possible soil carbon projects, with the potential to sequester 49,000 tons of CO2e over 50 years.
Downforce Technologies used its groundbreaking technology to create Essex-wide maps of both Soil Organic Carbon and Biodiversity. These provided unprecedented levels of insight and will be used by county-level bodies such as the Local Nature Partnership, to identify the most suitable areas for carbon and biodiversity projects, and to monitor progress.
Using existing biodiversity assessments at the pilot sites, the NEIRF project also identified the potential to create 1,629 Biodiversity Units, with enhanced habitats including lowland meadows, neutral grasslands, coastal saltmarshes, scrubland, woodland, heathland and shrub.
Investing in tomorrow
In the space of a year (Sep 2022 to Sep 2023), the project delivered four innovative investment-ready options. Across the four sites, Downforce Technologies successfully measured five natural capital asset types in Essex: enclosed farmland, freshwater and wetlands, woodland, coastal margin and semi-natural grassland, as well as four different ecosystem services: biodiversity enhancement, carbon sequestration, clean water, and flood and erosion risk reduction. As a result of this insight, a strategy was implemented which is designed to maximise each site's environmental and financial benefits, while delivering the unique vision of each project.
The planned interventions are:
Spains Hall Estate - Enhance soil and water quality, sequester carbon, improve new habitats for biodiversity and help retain more water on site, reducing flood and erosion risk. The interventions to achieve this include riparian rewilding, woodland creation, improving woodland management, and transforming part of the land to sustainable farming and agroforestry
Wildfell - Improve biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and water retention through woodland creation, meadow and hedgerow restoration, pond restoration and rewilding.
Braxted Park - Unlock the 180ha site’s strong potential for woodland carbon sequestration and biodiversity through woodland creation and rewilding.
Abbots Hall Farm - Maximise biodiversity on site and contribute to carbon sequestration and improve the condition of marine habitats. The site aims to do this by maintaining large-scale cultivated plots of wild bird cover and flower-rich grassland, the creation of a coastal grassland and a shallow saline lagoon, and experimental salt marsh restoration.
At a county level, the Essex-wide Soil Carbon and Biodiversity maps will help Essex County Council identify the most suitable areas for carbon and biodiversity projects, both in the 1,217 square kilometre ‘Climate Focus Area’ and more widely, to help reach its net zero and biodiversity goals. The maps offer a vital tool for engaging with farmers and landowners, to improve soil health and resilience, and reconnect lost habitat corridors. The maps also offer a scalable solution for carbon and biodiversity project planning which can be rolled out across the whole of the UK.
“The Essex Net Zero Innovation Futures project is all about finding and unlocking the potential of nature sites around the country. Downforce Technologies gives us the tools to do just that. It’s allowed us to digitally map and monitor our carbon and biodiversity gains. It gives us the data to go to investors and partners and easily speak to the progress and opportunities of these sites and others.”
Tim Simpson, Green Infrastructure Manager, Essex County Council