To meet the target for the 2008 UK Climate Change Act, by 2050 agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to fall by 80% compared with the 1990 level. At the same time, food production has to increase, to meet the needs of a growing population.
The government proposes that the farming industry should self-regulate its emissions reduction, despite widespread scepticism about the effectiveness of voluntary agreements. For instance, Sainsbury’s Chief Executive Justin King has argued that legislation is preferable to voluntary agreements, which he describes as “the refuge of scoundrels”.
The 2050 target breaks down into shorter term targets: for example, by 2020 the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan requires the farming industry to reduce GHG emissions by 11% compared with the 1990 level. (The Farming Futures website has an interactive version of the Farm Greenhouse Gases graphic, below, which shows how farms produce the greenhouse gases nitrous oxide (N2O), methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2)
Voluntary farming industry agreement on emissions reduction
In line with the coalition government’s policy that the farming industry should self-regulate its emissions reduction, a farming industry partnership has come up with the Agricultural Industry GHG Action Plan:Framework for Action 2010. It aims to meet the 2020 target for reducing farm greenhouse gases, cutting them by 3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year during 2018-22. (For purposes of comparison, in 2009 farming GHG emissions were 45million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.)
The GHG action plan encourages farmers to change their behaviour by adopting simple no/low cost measures to reduce their farm GHG emissions, in the hope that this will avoid the need for legislation.
Proposed low/no cost ways of reducing farm greenhouse gas emissions
The Agriculture Industry Greenhouse Gas Action Plan recommends that farmers should:
- Increase production efficiency and so reduce GHG emissions per hectare of crop and per kilogram of livestock. The main methods include improving the efficiency and effectiveness of nitrogen use in crop farming, improving the efficiency of feed conversion in livestock and storing manures in ways which reduce emissions. Production efficiency in livestock farming has already increased – 5% fewer prime cattle and lambs were needed to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998.
- Improve soil and land management to make sure that soil has a high organic carbon content- in other words, as much rotting vegetation as possible is composted into the soil. This locks up as much carbon dioxide as possible in the soil, instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
- Improving the soil is important because a lot of UK soil is degraded.
- Generate or use renewable energy/ increase energy efficiency to reduce the amount of fossil fuels used to heat and light farms and run machinery.
Storing carbon in new woodlands
The government is also encouraging investment in new woodlands in order to store/sequester carbon and help reduce climate change. The new Woodland Carbon Code spells out conditions that new woodland projects need to meet in order to be certified as carbon offset projects. This means that organisations and individuals can invest in them in order to offset their own carbon emissions. The Woodland Carbon Code is only for voluntary carbon offsetting. Organisations can’t count the carbon saved by their investment in new woodland as part of a regulatory carbon offsetting scheme like the Carbon Reduction Scheme or European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, or as part of internationally traded carbon credits.
Problems with government proposals for reducing farm greenhouse gases
According to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), improving the greenhouse gas efficiency (ie the GHGs produced per unit of food) won’t necessarily reduce farming GHG emissions – if this makes UK farming more competitive, it could increase the numbers of UK livestock or the areas of UK land under crops and so could increase overall farm GHG emissions.
Defra also says that there’s little evidence that increasing the amount of carbon stored in the soil can significantly offset UK greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, Defra says there’s some evidence that arable soils may be losing soil carbon. And although there may be ways of increasing soil carbon in UK arable land, for example by minimal or zero tillage (ie not ploughing the land, or ploughing it much less), most UK soils are heavy and are likely to become compacted if they are not ploughed. Soil compaction increases nitrous oxide emissions, which is one of the main farm greenhouse gases, and this could exceed the benefits of increasing soil carbon storage.
A 2011 Royal Society Report says that existing proposals to reduce farm greenhouse gas emissions by increased efficiency and best management practices are “not nearly sufficient to realise an 80% cut in emissions by the agricultural sector by 2050″. It concludes that UK agriculture “will not be able to reduce its emissions by 80%, and targets for agriculture will need to be more realistic, with part of the burden being transferred to other sectors.”
However, some non-government proposals for reducing farm greenhouse gases are altogether more ambitious and hopeful.