Think tank calls for mass woodland planting drive, a ban on peatland burning, and a focus on low carbon farming methods in new report - but is the government listening?
Planting 70,000 hectares of new woodland each year, banning peatland burning, and incentivising low carbon farming practices are among a raft of urgent, ambitious actions the UK must take to drastically reduce the contribution land use is making to climate change.
That is the conclusion of a new report today from think tank Green Alliance, which argues the UK should aims to plant new trees covering an area twice the size of Sheffield each year in order to mitigate emissions and boost biodiversity.
It adds that urgent additional action is also required to rapidly decarbonise a UK agricultural sector that has seen emissions continue to rise in recent years.
Figures from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) show greenhouse gas emissions from farming and other rural land uses were over four times greater than those from UK industrial processes in 2016, and without action the sector is expected to become one of the largest UK emitters by 2050.
Late last year, the National Farmers' Union (NFU) announced a target for the UK's agricultural sector to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, but Green Alliance said major changes needed to be made immediately in order to achieve this goal.
It said decarbonising land use had to date not been a priority for EU or UK agricultural policy, and called for a new strategic approach to cut emissions from farming as well as improve the ability of natural systems to store carbon.
The government has promised to introduce a new Environment Bill that will transform the current agricultural subsidy regime under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) so that it better incentivises UK farmers to undertake 'public good' works, such as enhancing biodiversity, improving soil, restoring peatlands, protecting nature and mitigating flood risk.
However, green groups have repeatedly raised concerns the proposed Bill does not include strong enough protections and assurances to ensure effective green governance after Brexit. And today, MPs on Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee said the Bill had "severely downgraded" environmental principles in existing EU law, and offered "weaker" enforcement of environmental regulations.
Moreover, campaigners and businesses have argued that while the plans to reform subsidies are welcome the government is still yet to come forward with sufficient detail on how the new regime will work in practice. At the same time some farmers have voiced concerns that an incentive scheme that focuses primarily on environmental restoration could undermine food production and further erode incomes for farmers already battling with the threat of post-Brexit trade barriers
The new Green Alliance report recommends a number of key measures that should be prioritised in any reforms, including a plans for a major national tree planting drive, extensive peatland restoration, an end to damaging farming practices, trade deals which specify high environmental standards, and government support for lower carbon farming methods backed up by changes to consumer and business demand.
Taken together, these changes could slash almost 60 per cent of UK emissions from land use over the next decade, the think tank estimated, as well as enhancing biodiversity, reducing flood risk, and increasing the resilience and productivity of British farms.
But it said such low carbon measures needed to be rolled out rapidly across both the supply and demand sides of the agricultural sector, and be delivered in conjunction with a shift to healthier, more plant-based diets that can support changes in land use.
Sir Graham Wynne, Green Alliance trustee and former member of the CCC, said climate action was a "big opportunity" for UK farmers and land managers. "If we get it right, new, low carbon models of land management will make farms more productive and resilient to the effects of climate change," he said. "Delay will only make the challenge greater and more expensive. It takes time for trees to grow and soil to recover. This transformation needs to start now, not in the future."
Deputy president of the NFU, Guy Smith, said farmers would not be able to achieve net zero emissions by 2040 on their own. "It will need a number of approaches such as maintaining and planting new trees and hedgerows, improving farming's productive efficiency, and boosting our production of renewable energy," he said. "It will be a challenge, and we urge government and other stakeholders across the food chain to work with the agricultural industry to help deliver our net zero aspiration, alongside producing high quality, affordable food for the nation."
But a Defra spokesperson defended the government's record on the environmental protection and climate action, insisting tree planting was "at the heart" of the government's ambition to protect wildlife, reduce flood risk, and provide sustainable timber. "This is why we are introducing our new Environment Bill, which will include ambitious legislative measures to take direct action to address the biggest environmental priorities of our age," they added.
But with next week's report from the Committee on Climate Change on whether the UK should set a net zero emission target expected to highlight the crucial importance of natural carbon sinks and improved land use management, pressure on the government to come forward with clearer plans for decarbonising agriculture and accelerating the roll out of natural climate measures is only going to intensify.
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