Analysis: preparing for net zero

Climate change has now shifted from the fringes of debate into the mainstream, and with the Government embracing plans for ‘net zero’, farmers must prepare for the crucial role they will need to play

The Easter weekend was unseasonably sunny. With clear skies and temperatures in the low 20s, the beaches filled up and retailers did a roaring trade in barbecue staples. The weekend was also dominated by protestors blocking key junctions in London and an enigmatic Swedish teenager asking politicians to ‘tell the truth’ about the threat of rising temperatures leading to floods, wildfires, and risks to agricultural systems that sustain us all. This movement has had an unusually powerful effect.

And with the publication on 2 May of the new Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report, the issue is now firmly in the mainstream. The CCC report, commissioned by the governments of the UK, Wales and Scotland, recommends a new emissions target for the UK: net-zero greenhouse gases by 2050.

In Scotland, the netzero date was recommended for 2045, reflecting Scotland’s greater relative capacity to remove emissions than the UK as a whole. In Wales, the target is a 95% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, due in part to the reliance on sheep farming. These targets present significant challenges for agriculture, but the UK’s farming bodies have reacted positively. The NFU says it wants to go further than the CCC’s targets and is aiming to achieve ‘net zero’ 10 years early – by 2040.

The CCC says the targets are achievable with known technologies, and within the expected economic cost that Parliament accepted when it legislated the existing 2050 target for an 80% reduction from 1990. The focus will be on ensuring a supply of low-carbon electricity (which will need to quadruple by 2050), efficient buildings and low-carbon heating, electric vehicles (which should be the only option from 2035 or earlier), developing carbon capture and storage technology and low carbon hydrogen (which are a necessity, not an option), stopping biodegradable waste going to landfill, phasing-out potent fluorinated gases, increasing tree planting, and measures to reduce emissions on farms. However, it warns this is only possible if clear and well-designed policies to further reduce emissions are introduced across the economy without delay.

It notes the main challenges to achieving these ‘technically achievable’ aims, which will limit the effects already being felt – such as droughts, water shortages and wild fires – is whether government is able to “implement the fundamental and wide ranging policy reforms necessary to achieve this goal by 2050”. Despite the positivity from the NFU, it’s clear the farming sector must brace itself for an onslaught of criticism. Agriculture is listed in the report as the second biggest carbon producer, behind industry and ahead of aviation. The report describes “an emergent social change” leading to the “reduction in the consumption of meat and an increase in flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets” and assumes a 20% reduction in red meat and dairy consumption by 2050. It notes: “a further reduction may be possible if dietary changes are more rapid and extensive.”

The NFU is clearly wary of this. It says improvements in productivity, carbon capture and renewable energy production are the most effective ways to reach agricultural net zero targets. NFU deputy president Guy Smith says: “We will not halt climate change by curbing British production and exporting it to countries which may not have the same environmental conscience, or ambition to reduce their climate impact. “Rather, we must farm smarter, focusing on improving productivity, encouraging carbon capture and boosting our production of renewable energy. “British farmers have an important role to play in tackling climate change and our members are committed to this challenge, alongside fulfilling their responsibility to the public in providing high quality, sustainable and affordable food.”

In Northern Ireland, the situation is trickier. As Ulster Farmers’ Union Ivor Ferguson acknowledges: “Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a huge challenge for NI agriculture but we are up for it.” Echoing Guy Smith, the UFU says it’s crucial that in its bid to tackle climate change the UK does not export food production to countries with lower environmental standards or ambition to tackle this important issue. “Hindering domestic food production is not the way to address climate change. Grassland, farmland hedges and trees are also crucial for carbon sequestration,” says Ferguson.

Farming more efficiently will become very important, because as the CCC report notes, increasing agricultural productivity will “release land for afforestation and peatland restoration. Afforestation should be a priority since it offers a well-known and relatively rapid way to increase GHG removals.” Food waste is also cited as an area where significant carbon savings can be made, and if done well, this is one area where improvements could be made relatively painlessly.

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