The Committee on Climate Change is recommending that reducing emissions from land use should be central to delivering the UK’s net-zero economy, reports David Craik
An ex-City oil trader who quit his job to return to the family farm is striving to help the agricultural sector reduce harmful greenhouse gases.
This September, George Young of Fobbing Farm in Essex will start planting up to 15,000 trees over the next five years.
“We are doing the top land of the farm, with the first batch being 2,000 or 3,000 trees over 20 hectares,” he explains. “We are also planting a ‘wilded’ seam through the farm for birds and animals to run up and down, and improve our ecological contribution.”
The agriculture and land use sectors have not contributed to emissions reductions over the past 10 years
Young is also introducing new varieties of crops such as heritage wheats, which require less fertilisers, as well as energy-crop industrial hemp. “We stopped using insecticides five years ago and are going fully organic this spring,” he added.
According to a new report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which advises the UK on meeting its statutory commitment to reach net-zero by 2050, all farmers and landowners should be doing more to help the country meet its environmental goals.
Agriculture, forestry and other land use sectors are responsible for 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions, largely resulting from deforestation and emissions from soil, livestock and nutrient management. In the UK, based on 2017 figures, these amounted to 58m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – a mix of mainly methane, nitrous dioxide and carbon dioxide – or 12% of total UK emissions.
The CCC believes that agricultural emissions can be reduced to 21m tonnes by 2050 through more low-carbon farming practices, such as controlled-release fertilisers, bioenergy crops and agro-forestry techniques, which would increase tree cover by 30,000ha a year. The cost would amount to £1.4bn a year, with finance from government and the private sector.
“The agriculture and land use sectors have not contributed to emissions reductions over the past 10 years,” says Ewa Kmietowicz, transport and agriculture sector team leader at the CCC. She puts this down to a lack of UK government policy impetus and the EU Common Agricultural Policy’s (CAP) basic payments scheme – the provision of financial support for farmers in member states, which had few environmental measures within it.
“We’re also failing to meet current annual forestry planting targets” while incentives for agricultural land use have not seen fundamental change for decades.
The government should make the proposed changes now. There is no reason to delay. The opportunity is in the next five years
While the government’s new Agriculture Bill proposes replacing current CAP direct payments when they end in seven years’ time with incentives to reward farmers for environmental protection and enhancement, Kmietowicz says the government should make the proposed changes now. "There is no reason to delay it," she said. "The opportunity is in the next five years."
Kmietowicz believes the government and industry should extend existing regulations to reduce on-farm emissions. This includes the EU’s Nitrates Directive, which restricts when and fertilisers can be applied in designated nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs) to minimise nitrate run off from soils into water. At present the zones cover all of Northern Ireland, 14% of Scotland and 55% of England, but the CCC wants it extended to cover the whole of the UK.
It also wants the Government’s Clean Air Strategy to target reductions of ammonia, which is emitted during the storage and spreading of manures and slurries and the application of inorganic fertilisers, while cows and sheep’s methane emissions can be reduced through the use of feed additives.
Other recommendations call for a ban on the rotational burning of peatland, public funding for tree planting on farms and low-interest loans for energy crops.
Meanwhile the Green Alliance thinktank believes Brexit could allow the UK to slash emissions to 19.6m tonnes by 2030, two decades earlier than the CCC’s timetable. In a report published last year it criticises past EU and UK agricultural policy for encouraging farmers to maximise short-term food production and intensive farming rather than thinking and acting sustainably.
“There have been funded agri-environment schemes for years, but the take-up has been relatively low and ineffective. The CAP gave payments based on area of land owned, but the government should pay them for [contributing to climate change mitigation],” says Belinda Gordon, strategy director at the Green Alliance.
Farming is quite a traditional sector, but this is on their agenda now. You even get some farmers who are part of Extinction Rebellion
Gordon admitted that getting from 58m tonnes to 19.6m tonnes by 2030 would require “radical” action, but hitting those levels by 2050 would be feasible with the right policies in place.
“After leaving the EU and the CAP we can enforce existing regulations better and improve them so they are more effective. Farming is quite a traditional sector, but this is on their agenda now. You even get some farmers who are part of Extinction Rebellion.”
Indeed, the National Farmers Union launched a recent report setting out a goal for farming in England and Wales to be net-zero by 2040.
Measures include farmers capturing more carbon through bigger hedgerows, more woodland, enhancing soil organic matter and growing fuel for power stations. The report also suggests improving the health of cattle and sheep and use of food additives to reduce methane emissions.
It called on the government to provide financial support for farmers to deliver a more carbon-neutral sector, including a new shared prosperity fund for rural development.
Defra declined to put up a spokesperson to be interviewed, but in an emailed response to questions, a spokesperson said: “We are reforming farming policy to reward environmental actions, reviewing our food system to ensure it is more sustainable, [and] taking steps to accelerate tree-planting and peatland restoration.”
Re-wet and you get an almost instant shutting down of emissions
But industry doesn’t have to wait for the bill to pass to find financial support and advice.
Scottish Forestry has funding available for landowners to cover initial planting, annual maintenance payments for up to five years and a capital grant for fencing and tree protection.
In addition, George Young has secured funding for his tree planting from the Woodland Trust.
Landowners in Scotland can also utilise Wildlife Estate Scotland, which is an accreditation scheme for estates looking to improve wildlife and environmental credentials.
There is also the UK Peatland Strategy, which aims to restore peatlands. Even though they are the largest natural terrestrial carbon store, they emit around 23m tonnes of CO2 a year through damage caused by drainage, burning and extraction for horticultural use. According to the IUCN UK, around 80% of peatlands are damaged in this way.
“You re-wet and you get an almost instant shutting down of emissions,” says Clifton Bain, director of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme.
One example is Scottish Power Renewables, which is restoring peatland habitats covering over 8,000 hectares across its wind farm sites. Heathrow Airport has also funded a project with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust to restore peatland, helping it to offset carbon emissions from its operations.
You can add new revenues by becoming a carbon farmer alongside your existing activities
It is not just businesses that can benefit. Farmers and landowners can also generate new income streams.
There is the Woodland Carbon Code, a voluntary standard that allows companies such as retailers, transport firms and financial institutions to pay owners and farmers to plant trees to help offset their carbon usage.
The IUCN UK’s Peatland Code also allows landowners and farmers to tap into private funding for peatland restoration projects.
“You can add new revenues by becoming a carbon farmer alongside your existing activities,” says Bain.
Lyn White of Scottish Forestry says income concerns are often raised by farmers.
“They think they won’t get an income from trees for 40 years. But with fast-growing species they can sell timber [after] around 20 years through thinning, which also helps manage the woodland for future quality timber production. Trees also provide excellent shelter for stock by slowing down wind speed, thus increasing productivity and reducing costs, also protecting crops and reducing soil erosion keeping soil their most valuable asset in the field,” she explains. “You can also get an income from amenities such as organised shoots.”
Young clearly recognises the need for profitability as well as sustainability.
“We are looking at selling birch sap from our birch trees, fruit juice from our orchard trees, wood for furniture makers and using wood chip and compost for the farm. These areas of our farm will still be productive,” he says.
Most farmers don’t want to be the first to try it, but reducing emissions is a no-brainer
But despite the opportunities, farmers and landowners can be left perplexed by competing environmental expectations.
“Landowners are being tasked with producing better quality food and reducing emissions. There are a lot of pressures,” says Stephen Young, head of policy at Scottish Land & Estates. “It is getting the balance right between all these, and sometimes we focus on one to the detriment of the other. They need more guidance about how they can all work together and work out what is best for their local area.”
Young says there needs to be more of a push to provide training and support for farmers, such as the creation of a network of agro-forestry workshops, but change is inevitable. “Most farmers don’t want to be the first to try it, but reducing emissions is a no-brainer,” he says.
David Craik has been a freelance journalist for 15 years. He writes business news and feature articles for a variety of national newspapers and magazines
This article is part of our in-depth Deforestation briefing. See also: