Land Use: Policies for Net Zero

The way land is used in the UK will have to see a ‘transformation’ if the country is to meet its target of Net Zero emissions by 2050. This is the conclusion of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the Government’s independent advisors on climate change, in their first ever report into land use which was published on the 23rd January. As the dominant user of land in the British Isles, farming would be at the forefront of these changes.

The key recommendations in the report for farming, and the wider food sector and consumers are;

  • Low-carbon Farming Practices: such as controlled release fertilisers, improving livestock health, and slurry management
  • Afforestation and Agro-forestry: increasing UK forestry cover from 13% to at least 17% by 2050 by planting around 30,000 hectares or more of broadleaf and conifer woodland each year.  In addition, 2% of the agricultural area should be devoted to agro-forestry (planting trees, whilst maintaining the agricultural use).  Additional hedgerow planting is also recommended.
  • Peatlands:  restoring at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat.  This equates to 7% of the UK’s land area.  Although there might be some agricultural production, it is likely to be very low intensity grazing at best.
  • Bio-energy Crops:  increase the growing of energy crops by around 23,000 hectares each year so that by 2050 they comprise 3% of total land use.  The report states that energy crops are faster growing than new woodland, but also cautions that the negative impacts of energy crops need to be managed.
  • Reducing Meat and Milk Consumption: (i.e. beef, lamb and dairy) by at least 20% per person.  The report implicitly recognises that this might be the most contentious recommendation.  It states that such a reduction would bring consumption within healthy eating guidelines, and can drive sufficient release of land to support the proposed changes in tree planting and bioenergy crops.  It calculates that, alongside expected population growth, it requires around a 10% reduction in cattle and sheep numbers by 2050 compared with 2017 levels.  Then the report points out that this compares with a reduction of around 20% in numbers over the past two decades.
  • Reducing Food Waste: the 13.6m tonnes of food waste produced annually should be reduced by 20%

In terms of how to achieve this shift, the report suggests there should be a mix of legislation, public funding and better information, advice and training.  With regards to legislation, this might include regulating enteric fermentation from livestock and steps such as a change in the diet of cattle to reduce methane emissions.  The report suggests public funding should be used to incentivise farmers to plant trees and take up lower-carbon farming practices as well as for non-carbon benefits such as helping to prevent floods and for recreational purposes.  In respect of changing diets, it suggests the first stage should be relatively ‘soft’ through persuading consumers and the wider food chain to make changes.  A second stage of regulation or pricing needs to be considered if this does not work.

The report recognises reducing emissions should not be done by producing less food in the UK and increasing imports, it goes on to state that the UK is a ‘relatively low-greenhouse gas producer of ruminant meat’.  The report outlines methane emissions are a key factor for the farming sector (unlike most other sectors, where CO2 is the biggest issue).  It also addresses how methane emissions are assessed, and equated to CO2 – there is increasing debate on this subject.

Methane has a far greater global warming effect than CO2.  However, CO2 emissions raise the concentrations in the atmosphere for thousands of years, whilst methane has mostly disappeared after approximately 12 years.  It is argued methane-induced warming is dependent on whether the emissions are sustained or new emissions.  Like much in the climate change sphere, it seems the measurement and statistics are open to interpretation, without an agreed methodology.  This may provide some comfort to the livestock sector that it is not as bad as it has been painted.  However, it would be dangerous to cling to this too closely as a reason to continue unchanged.  Society will expect farming to do its bit and many of the policies outlined in the CCC report will be part of that change.