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England is evading its share of net zero responsibility

Net zero targets are a shared responsibility across the UK. But new government data reveals that England is planning to use trees in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to offset high emissions from English farming. Green Alliance brought this to attention in The Times. 

The government’s Net Zero Strategy sets targets for the land sector across the UK, not for each nation. As land use policy is devolved, the pathways towards the UK target are being devised by each nation separately. Having revealed Defra’s target for England through a parliamentary question, Caroline Lucas MP said: “Defra has been caught out marking its own homework”. 

Defra must raise its ambition on land use policy
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra’s) aim appears to be for England to meet less than one third of the overall UK net zero target. Yet England is responsible for nearly double that in respect of its share of farm and land use emissions. There has been no scrutiny of the process through which the UK target has been divided up. This has left Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland needing to decarbonise their land sectors by three times more than England, despite being responsible for a minority of the total emissions. These countries have land that is well suited to carbon removal and nature restoration and might want to reap the rewards of doing so – but the decision should be a conscious one, with the benefits and drawbacks spelled out explicitly. 

In part this is because emissions savings need to add up across the UK. We know that land use policies in the UK do not get us on track to net zero. We think part of the problem is that Defra’s target is not ambitious enough, partly because English farmers are at risk of losing out. If Defra fails to support English farmers to cut their carbon emissions, they will not reap the benefits of decarbonisation.

The future of English farming could be jeopardised if carbon taxes are used to penalise high emitters, or if food companies begin to select for lower carbon producers as part of their own decarbonisation strategies.  

Farmers need equal support to cut emissions
Defra has a sizable budget that could be used to support farmers to cut emissions. About £2.4 billion is paid out to landowners in England every year. Under existing policy, most of that budget is paid to farmers simply for having land in agricultural condition. It is paid in a deeply unequal way.  

If you ordered farms by how much their owners receive in direct payments (ie the £233 payment landowners currently receive each year for every 100 metre x 100 metre patch of land they farm), as much was spent on the top one per cent of farms as on the bottom 50 per cent.

Long delayed, the new policy to replace direct payments, called Environmental Land Management (ELM), has been in design for six years, but farmers are still in the dark about how much they will be paid for their actions to cut emissions, sequester carbon and create habitat for wild species. ELM will create many more winners than losers, but the largest landowners are likely to receive a lower share of taxpayer’s money than they have done.

Defra should welcome the chance for change
However, change, should be welcomed. Today, every taxpayer in the country paid £83 to a landowner this year, on top of what they spent on food. That £83 is money for nothing. In the future, every pound of taxpayers’ money should be spent delivering public goods that they can directly or indirectly benefit from, like flood mitigation, carbon sequestration or biodiversity.

Using just a third of the budget to create habitats for nature and carbon sequestration on the least productive ten per cent of farmland could deliver half the land sector’s emissions savings needed by 2035, boost populations of wild species by half and increase farm incomes 20 per cent, with loss of less than 0.5 per cent of the food we eat. Defra must embrace England’s responsibility to cut emissions from the land sector, increase its emissions reduction target, and rapidly roll out payments that support farmers to cut emissions, sequester carbon and restore nature. 

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