Recognising that climate change is the challenge of our lifetime, The Duchy of Cornwall is committed to achieving net zero across the varied and diverse portfolio of the estate.
The Duchy is a private estate that provides an income to The Duke of Cornwall. Its vision is one of sustainable stewardship, enabling the estate to be passed on with pride to the next generation.
Extending to around 130,000 acres, the estate includes land in 20 counties in England and Wales, from the Isles of Scilly in the south west, across to Kent in the east, and from Dorset to Nottinghamshire.
It encompasses 260 fully-equipped farms and a variety of farm business enterprises of all shapes and sizes, from 10-acre smallholdings to 1,000-acre operations, covering everything from livestock, arable, dairy and fruit to more unique diversified farm systems.
Matthew Morris, Land Steward for the Duchy, says: “You name it, it’s probably farmed somewhere on the Duchy.”
This tremendous diversity presents a significant challenge for the estate on its journey to net zero.
Towards net zero
The organisation’s in-house operations have been net zero for over 15 years. Since 2006, emissions have been offset through a programme that includes tree planting, renewable heating systems and, for example, making electric cars available for staff. However, because almost all Duchy land is let, when considering the wider footprint of these farming operations and that of the supply chain, the challenge of attaining net zero becomes a much greater effort, one that requires the whole team to work together.
Recognising the severity of the climate crisis and the resulting severe weather impacts on its farming tenants, a zero carbon strategy has been launched along with a zero carbon task force, which aims to put the programme work in action across the estate.
Early assessments suggest that around 220,000 tonnes of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) are emitted across the estate. Emissions from land use and farming make up a significant proportion of these emissions (known as scope three emissions) and are perhaps the most complicated as this is an area where the Duchy does not have direct control. It is estimated that emissions from the lowland let farms equate to around 140,000 tonnes CO2e. Another major consideration is the degraded peatland on Dartmoor, with a further 50,000 tonnes CO2e emitted.
Matthew says: “To put this into perspective, just one of our larger let dairy farms has a greater effect on emissions than our entire portfolio of over 500 directly let residential properties. This exemplifies the problem there is within agriculture more generally.
“We are, however, ready for the challenge ahead. Because of the long-standing, good relationships our team has with our farming tenants, we can all work together and ensure that both the Duchy and the farmers are equipped with the knowledge and resources to realise individual sustainability options and aspirations.”
The Duchy has identified eight focus farms that will act as exemplars, and will also provide checks and challenges along the way. These farmers, along with many others, are already positively engaging in efforts to improve the emissions from their business activity. By working with them and bringing on board a team of specialists, the Duchy is looking at innovative solutions, new ways of farming, using technology to reduce inputs and actively encouraging a more sustainable and regenerative approach. By planting trees, restoring its peatland and managing its most precious resource – the soil – the estate can sequester carbon and help prevent its release.
Net zero is a key pillar in a much wider journey.
Sustainability runs through everything that we do, and has done so for perhaps 40 or 50 years. For any organisation that wishes to go on this journey, sustainability must be embedded across the entire organisation, and it must fit in and flow through all the operations within that organisation.
Across the estate, and running in parallel with its zero carbon strategy, is an ambition to improve natural capital. The aim is to ‘find space’ for nature, wherever possible, to improve overall biodiversity.
The Duchy is presently engaged in undertaking baseline audits of natural capital across the whole estate. As part of this, the Duchy has recruited ecologists and natural capital advisers. In addition, it has partnered with the Farm Carbon Toolkit and engaged two of its soil specialists who are visiting every farm and conducting a soil health analysis.
This process involves taking scientific and physical measurements of soil health indicators, including organic matter. As well as technical data, the team is also practically engaged, digging holes and counting worms as a further measure of soil health. While healthy soil will sequester carbon, there are many complexities involved; the soil structure, chemistry, organic matter and biology of the soil all need to be just right to make the difference.
The Duchy is also developing a strategy and roadmap for a journey that will see the estate become scope three net zero well ahead of the Government’s ambition of 2050. Nevertheless, the team does not underestimate the complex road ahead.
The journey of change is not straightforward, and a sound framework is essential.
"Luckily, for our large areas of peatland on Dartmoor and our woodlands, established carbon codes exist, which guide and regulate matters. However, when it comes to soil carbon, the absence of a soil code is currently a major barrier and risks an unregulated void developing in the carbon market. You are, after all, but one plough away from releasing that sequestered carbon.”
The road to net zero represents a long-term shift in land practices. To manage soil carbon, the Duchy recognises the importance of working side by side with tenants to mitigate risks to their businesses and livelihoods.
Net zero is both a challenge and an opportunity. The Duchy as a whole, including the staff team and tenants, is embarking on this journey together to ensure a better future.