It’s time to include land use in climate policy

land use smallThis post is by Sir Graham Wynne, Green Alliance trustee and chief executive of the RSPB from 1998 to 2010. 

As Professor Jim Skea said at a recent Green Alliance event, it is no longer a choice between doing big things or little things to address climate change, we have to do everything. The IPCC says we have twelve years to contain global warming to 1.5 degrees and every sector has to play a full part.

One area that has received a surprisingly small amount of attention – certainly in relation to its climate change impacts – is the way we use land. Taken together, emissions from the agricultural and land sectors amounted to 53 MtCO2e in 2016, or 11 per cent of the UK’s total emissions. Yet the scope for action is huge, from more efficient fertiliser use to the restoration of our peatlands. Many of the things we need to do, both in the short and longer terms, are well known. So how can we catalyse the rapid and ambitious change we need? This is the question behind a major new Green Alliance project.

The prospect of leaving the EU is a unique opportunity to rethink the policy framework for climate mitigation from land use. I am chairing an expert steering group for Green Alliance to investigate this question. We will be drawing on recent work by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and the Royal Society on the ways land use could contribute to emissions cuts. Building on what they have done, we will be identifying the policies needed to cut emissions in ways that make business sense for farmers and land managers.

The areas we will be looking at include:

  • Changing agricultural methods – smarter use of synthetic fertilisers, managing manure better and altering livestock diets can all reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the same time as increasing farm productivity and reducing environmental impact. What policies are needed to drive these changes?
  • Protecting soils – carbon can be ‘locked’ into soils and peatland is an excellent carbon sink, storing around 40 per cent of the UK’s soil carbon. But most peatland in the UK has been so degraded by agriculture, forestry and development that it is now expected to emit around 16 million tonnes of greenhouse gases each year (equivalent to the emissions from 3.4 million cars in a year). Restoring our peatlands is an obvious source of big emissions savings. Inadequate recognition of the problem, complex systems of land ownership and a lack of incentives are all preventing progress.
  • Expanding woodland – we will also be looking at how to unlock the potential of woodland expansion and agroforestry to sequester much more carbon from the atmosphere. The CCC estimates that afforestation and agroforestry could contribute 1.8 and 0.6 MtCO2e emissions savings by 2030, respectively. But there are barriers. In the case of agroforestry, for example, these include a lack of knowledge and guidance, limited financial support and the fact that it is an area that falls into a policy void between forestry, agri-environment schemes and agriculture. What needs to be done to drive a step change in afforestation and tree planting, in ways that also maximise other benefits?

A priority for our research will be to propose what can be done right now on a ‘no regret’ basis; as well as looking at longer term system changes to ensure we continue to produce the food we need while radically reducing land use emissions and protecting the environment. We’ll make recommendations for the upcoming England Peat Strategy, the new emissions reduction plan for agriculture and the English Tree Strategy, which Michael Gove recently committed to. We will also be supporting Greener UK to build land decarbonisation into its campaign for an ambitious Environment Act.

We report on this research in spring 2019. If you would like to know more about it, please get in touch with Caterina Brandmayr at cbrandmayr@green-alliance.org.uk.

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