Land Use and Net Zero

In January, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) published its latest report on Land Use and getting to a Net Zero UK. The main purpose of the report is to discuss how land use can support this whole sale change in how we de-carbonise the economy and sequester carbon out of the atmosphere.

The agriculture sector in the UK accounted for 12% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2017; this equates to 58 MtCO2e. To put this into some context, the two main agricultural greenhouse gases are methane and nitrous oxide; both far more harmful than carbon dioxide, but which dissipate from the atmosphere quicker. When compared to other sectors, farming is a much lower emitter. However, it arguably plays a bigger role in climate change mitigation (i.e. carbon sequestration).

Why? When you look at the UK, over 70% of our land mass is under agricultural control. That is a substantial amount of rural land which presents far more opportunities for carbon sequestration in comparison to urban land. Furthermore, there are a number of opportunities for the agricultural sector to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases it is emitting. So there is a two fold approach farmers need to take, with carbon sequestration arguably being a priority.

So what is so important about the recent CCC report? Firstly, it links into the more global Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the same issue of land use. This is important, as it shows a general approach to global land use for de-carbonising the atmosphere. Secondly, it is based on independent and well grounded science, backed by expert opinion. It paints a rounded picture and is clear that environmental goals can be achieved at the same time as producing plentiful food. The report is clear in its message to work collectively and to be positive and proactive.

What are the key messages to take from the report? We need to rapidly move towards low emission farming systems. This includes things like low-emission slurry spreading, use of no-tillage and cover crops, adoption of Agroforestry systems, and better livestock management.

Furthermore, there has to be an acceleration in the numbers of trees planted each year. This must ramp up to roughly 90-120 million trees a year (equivalent to 30,000 hectares a year) by 2050. This is a vital aspect to mitigating climate change. Trees provide a long-term carbon sequestration plan. Alongside this, they present other beneficial opportunities to farmers (see post on Agroforestry systems). We also need to look at turning 10% of agricultural land to Agroforestry systems. These systems greatly increase above and below ground carbon storage solutions. Some farmers who practice Agroforestry have claimed that they have increased yield per hectare and improved profit margins by reducing overall inputs. Therefore, this way of farming could be a win-win for farm businesses.

A more ambitious goal is to restore 55% of peatlands by 2050. Our peatlands are a huge carbon sink. However, the drainage of land for a number of purposes (including agricultural) means there effectiveness to sequester and store carbon has been impeded.

The last key message is that we need to consider the use of bioenergy crops within our energy system. The CCC report suggests that we need to increase bioenergy crop production to 23,000 hectares a year.

More controversially, but an important point to discuss, is that the whole UK population needs to consider reducing its meat and dairy consumption. The message isn’t that we should cut it out, but look to reduce consumption by roughly 50% per person. This would be a considerable change in our diet. It means less, but of better quality. More importantly, buy meat and dairy products that are produced in the UK. The transport of food from outside the UK is not part of the agricultural sectors equation. Transport is a whole other topic for discussion. This more widely links into the need for whole sale behaviour change.

For example, food waste is a big issue in the UK. If we reduce the amount of food we waste, we will greatly reduce our carbon footprint. We must look at ways to reduce food waste by 20% over the next 10 years.

Taking all of this into consideration, the agricultural and food sector could cut carbon emissions by 64% (or 43 MtCO2e per year) by 2050.

I believe that soil will play a key part in tackling and adapting to climate change. Our soil is one of our most vital assets. For a farmer, it should be seen as one of the most important parts of their business. Not only are there a number of opportunities to sequester and store more carbon in agricultural soils, but improving the natural functions of this wonderful substance will build climate change resilience in farm businesses. For example, it will allow your soil to hold onto more water and be more resilient during periods of dry weather. Further to that, it will allow your soil to infiltrate more water during wet periods, reducing the risk of flooding and giving a better chance of getting onto the land to sow crops in the winter and early spring.

The autumn and winter of 2019 has been a prime example. The prolonged wet weather has disrupted winter plantings and it is expected that farmers may struggle to plant spring crops in February. The land is saturated and there has been little let up until we final had some drier spells in January. From speaking to some farmers who use a Regenerative Agriculture system, they have found it much easier to get on the land and drill seed. Their neighbours have not had the same experience. This is in the same area, with the same rainfall, on the same soil type and growing similar crops. To me, it shows that the Regenerative Agriculture land has been able to soak up more water and drain better due to a much more effective soil structure.

What should you take from this? It is more urgent than ever to look at how you can decarbonise your business and more to a system which sequesters and stores more carbon in your soil. This will not only help to mitigate climate change, but it is a vital process in adapting to the changes in weather. Consider integrating Conservation Agriculture, Agroforestry, mob-grazing, and herbal ley grazing into your farming model.

I want to finish this blog by recommending that you add the CCC report on Land Use to your bed time reading list. As a farmer, it is important to know some of the thinking and key messages the Committee is putting forward. One thing to take away from it is that food production needs to be part of the climate conversation.

References:

Committee on Climate Change (2020) ‘Land use policies for a Net Zero UK’ https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/land-use-policies-for-a-net-zero-uk/#key-findings.

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