Major shift in UK land use needed to deliver Net Zero emissions

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The UK has committed to becoming a Net Zero economy by 2050. Meeting that goal requires a transformation in land use across the UK. Government must confront the rapid changes that are now needed, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) says in its first ever in-depth advice on UK agricultural policies.

In 2017, land use – including agriculture, forestry and peatland – accounted for 12% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. By 2050, with the right support, farmers and land-managers can reduce these emissions by almost two thirds. This transition is necessary for Net Zero, it will create net benefits for the UK and leave our land more resilient to the changing climate.

The Committee’s new report, Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK, presents a detailed range of options to drive emissions reductions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is published at a time of significant change, as the UK leaves the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy. In Westminster, new Agriculture and Environment Bills are being introduced this month. Similar legislation is planned in Scotland and Wales – opening the way to the steps recommended by the Committee.

Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, said:

“Changing the way we use our land is critical to delivering the UK’s Net Zero target. The options we are proposing would see farmers and land managers – the stewards of the land – delivering actions to reduce emissions. Doing so can provide new revenue opportunities for farmers, better air quality and improved biodiversity, and more green spaces for us all to enjoy. But major changes are required and action from government is needed quickly if we are to reap the rewards.”

The Committee’s in-depth analysis shows that emissions from UK land use can be reduced by 64% to around 21 MtCO2e by 2050. The report demonstrates that this can be achieved without producing less food in the UK or increasing imports from elsewhere.

There are five objectives for new policy:

  • Increase tree planting – increasing UK forestry cover from 13% to at least 17% by 2050 by planting around 30,000 hectares (90 – 120 million trees) of broadleaf and conifer woodland each year.
  • Encourage low-carbon farming practices – such as ‘controlled-release’ fertilisers, improving livestock health and slurry acidification.
  • Restore peatlands – restoring at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat.
  • Encourage bioenergy crops – expanding UK energy crops to around 23,000 hectares each year.
  • Reduce food waste and consumption of the most carbon-intensive foods – reduce the 13.6 million tonnes of food waste produced annually by 20% and the consumption of beef, lamb and dairy by at least 20% per person, well within current healthy eating guidelines.

The Committee is proposing a mix of regulations and incentives to drive these changes and provide land managers with the long-term clarity they need. The actions identified would release around one-fifth of agricultural land for actions that reduce emissions and store carbon.

  • Strengthening the regulatory baseline – Extending existing regulation to reduce on-farm emissions and using new legislation to further regulate agricultural emissions. Banning damaging practices such as rotational burning on peatland and peat extraction.
  • New funding and revenue raising actions – A new market-based measure to promote tree planting, either through auctioned contracts similar to those offered for renewable electricity or with the inclusion of forestry in a carbon trading scheme. This should be funded by a levy on greenhouse gas-emitting industries like aviation, but must not offset emissions reductions needed to meet Net Zero in other parts of the economy. Separately, public funding should encourage further steps: low-carbon farming practices, like precision farming, peatland restoration and the non-carbon benefits of land use change like flood risk alleviation and recreation.
  • Measures to enable rapid change – Support schemes to strengthen skills, training for low-carbon farming and raise awareness of sustainable management of lowland peat. Low-interest loans for energy crops and an agreement with biomass combustion facilities to source a minimum proportion of their feedstock from the UK.

The Committee’s assessment shows that these measures carry a total cost of around £1.4 billion per year, generating wider benefits of £4bn per year. Much of this funding can be provided privately – the total cost should be met through a combination of public and private funding. This will be a key consideration for the Treasury in its Net Zero Review of costs. At present, the UK deploys £3.3bn each year through the Common Agricultural Policy.

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