Net zero: an update from the environment, food and rural affairs committee

Green Alliance is tracking the UK’s net zero policy progress in key areas of government throughout this year. This week we are featuring a series of daily blogs in which we hear from the chairs of five parliamentary select committees, who answer our questions about the progress being made in their committee’s area of interest. This post is by Neil Parish MP, chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

Is your select committee holding any inquiries relevant to the UK’s net zero ambitions? 
English farming policies are currently undergoing the largest overhaul in living memory. The new Environmental Land Management scheme has been billed as bringing sustainability to the fore and is a real opportunity to tackle the 12 per cent of UK emissions that come from agriculture and land use. 

The EFRA Committee is scrutinising it intensely. We must make sure that it can deliver its ambitious environmental targets for the sector while supporting British farmers and growers. Food production in Britain must be sustainable in both senses of the word, good for the environment but also providing jobs and incomes for our farmers and rural communities.  

That is why we will also be continuing to closely monitor the government’s commitment not to weaken the UK’s environmental standards in trade deals. We cannot allow UK producers to be undercut by food produced in ways that we would not tolerate here. There is no point cutting emissions at home only to import more, less sustainable, products from abroad. 

As well as food and farming, we are also looking closely at the government’s flagship target to increase woodlands by 30,000 hectares a year by 2025. History tells us we need to make sure we are planting the right sorts of trees in the right places. The government’s focus cannot solely be on tree numbers. Planting the right trees in the right places can maximise the benefits, not only by capturing carbon, but also keeping soil from eroding and, in some areas, forming natural flood defences. It is welcome that Defra’s England Trees Action Plan commits to such a strategy, but the committee will be closely monitoring its rollout to ensure this is being delivered.  

Achieving these targets and delivering the changes to farming we need to see will need new skills. That is why we have also recently called on the government to invest in a long term national strategy for land-based skills, reversing decades of cuts and closures in land-based colleges. 

Where do you believe the government has done well in decarbonising agriculture and land use? 
The government well understands how important forestry will be to reach net zero over the next 30 years, and its targets for tree planting are ambitious. Moreover, our peatlands contain more carbon than the forests of the UK, France and Germany combined. So the government’s commitment to phase out peat compost, and restore 35,000 hectares of degraded peatland in England, is very welcome. This will play a hugely important role in hitting the net zero target.

Most of the work on decarbonising agriculture, however, is still to come. Carbon emissions from the sector have only decreased by two per cent in the last ten years. Although the government has clearly recognised this, with both the new Sustainable Farming Incentive and wider Environmental Land Management schemes, likely to promote measures that will reduce emissions, we are still waiting for the detail of how they will work. 

The government has also recognised the impact that UK consumers and companies can have on emissions abroad through what we buy. The provisions in the Environment Bill on tackling deforestation in supply chains are welcome, even if we may want to look at if they are tough enough, and I hope that it can deliver on its ambitions at the COP26 Glasgow climate summit this year and drive more ambitious global action. 

What challenges remain for reducing emissions in this area on the path to net zero?  
No one knows the UK environment better than those who work on the land every day. It’s fundamental that the government engages with and supports landowners and farmers along the road to net zero. The path will be much smoother and the journey much quicker if the government can work alongside landowners. This means listening to producers, asking for feedback and providing the necessary financial support to introduce the new technology and techniques that will be needed to adapt to a more sustainable model of farming. We have heard from farmers that there seems to be a genuine desire from Defra to do this, but also concerns that the process is now too rushed to achieve it properly. 

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