There are just 30 more harvests before the global population reaches the projected nine billion. Finding ways to feed the world without contributing further to the degradation of the environment and tackling climate change will be the focal point of the next decade. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) and international environmental groups have made it clear that there are just 10 years left to take action to keep warming to 1.5C. Temperature increases beyond that would have a catastrophic impact, and nobody knows that better than farmers who are already at the frontline of a changing climate.
Many CLA members are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emission from crop and livestock production, and to sequestering carbon in trees and soils. This will all contribute to the UK government legal commitment to a net-zero economy by 2050. The climate change debate is extremely nuanced and when it comes to agriculture and land use, none of it is simple. This series of resources on climate change aims to help understand the facts and dispel the myths. Armed with the right information, farmers and landowners across England and Wales can play their part in tackling the climate crisis head-on.
How are CLA members contributing to the net-zero goal?
- Adopting low-carbon farming practices
- Protecting and increasing carbon stored in soils
- Creating and managing woodland
- Planting hedgerows, shelter belts and agroforestry
- Restoring peatlands and wetlands
- Planting bioenergy crops
- Providing land for renewable energy systems
This page will give you an overview of the facts about land use and climate change and specific issues in different types of farm businesses and systems. It is important to recognise that there is no one ‘perfect’ farm system, but all can be improved to help contribute to climate change targets. For a more in-depth look at the discussion, members can download our full report:
- Carbon accounting for land managers
- Agriculture in perspective
- Download our infographic
- What does net-zero mean for…
A ‘farm carbon account’ measures the total amount and source of greenhouse gases emitted as a result of the activities of a farm enterprise as well as the amount of carbon absorbed through activities that sequester carbon, removing it from the atmosphere.
From this, a land manager can highlight areas where improvements or changes can be made to reduce total emissions or increase sequestration. Many CLA members have undertaken carbon accounts on their farms to identify priority areas to reduce emissions and sequester carbon, and benchmark progress.
The CLA has produced a Guidance Note to help members who want to get started on carbon accounting and look at ways to reduce their on-farm emissions and increase carbon sequestration, available here. There are online tools available to measure the carbon account of a holding. The CLA recommends the Cool Farm Tool and the Farm Carbon Calculator – both are free for farmers.
From a UK perspective, the agriculture sector currently represents 10% of total UK emissions. While this doesn’t seem like a large proportion, agricultural emissions have not significantly decreased since 2009. As other sectors like business and energy decarbonise, the proportion of emissions from agriculture will increase unless action is taken. For this reason, it is really important that the sector starts to reduce emissions as much as possible, while continuing to produce high-quality crops and livestock. This break down of emissions by sector, sourced from the BEIS 2018 Greenhouse Gas Emissions report, shows transport, energy and business making up the bulk of UK emissions:
The greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector are roughly 60% methane, 30% nitrous oxide and 10% carbon dioxide. This is very different to other sectors of the economy, which mainly emit carbon dioxide. Agricultural systems essentially cycle existing carbon between plants, animals and the atmosphere, however, methane and nitrous oxide are particularly ‘potent’ byproducts of the carbon cycle, so have a disproportionate impact on warming when released. It is important to acknowledge that producing crops and livestock inevitably creates greenhouse gas emissions, some as the result of biological or natural processes, and that these emissions cannot get to zero without halting food production entirely. This is very different to the burning of fossil fuels, which takes carbon stored for millions of years underground and places it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, where it remains causing warming for thousands of years.
For an overview of the report, download our infographic.
What net-zero means for...
Cattle and sheep are ruminant animals, meaning they produce methane through ‘enteric fermentation’. This is the process whereby plant material is digested and methane is produced as a by-product, usually through burping. These methane emissions are responsible for the majority of emissions from agriculture (51.6% in the UK).
There are also nitrous oxide emissions associated with the growing of feed for livestock, so the full supply chain must be looked at to assess the true carbon footprint of sheep, beef and dairy products.
Importantly, cattle and sheep grazing on permanent pasture play a big role in ensuring the large amount of carbon stored in those soils is protected. In some circumstances, grazing livestock can help increase the amount of carbon stored. Even small increases in carbon stored across big areas of land can have a massive impact on net emissions.
What does a low-carbon sheep, beef or dairy system look like?
A ‘low-carbon’ sheep or beef system is an efficient system, where measures to improve productivity are utilised. This should include improving animal health and welfare to reduce mortality and improve growth rates, breeding for disease resistance or optimising animal diets.
There is scope to reduce emissions by 10 million tonnes CO2e by 2050 through efficiency measures across agriculture, including productivity improvements in sheep, beef and dairy, by adopting best practices.
While there’s plenty of talk about diet change and reducing meat consumption, it’s important to remember that UK-produced beef from dedicated beef herds produce half as much greenhouse gases per kilogram of meat as the global average, with beef from UK dairy herds half of that again. England and Wales produce beef, lamb and dairy products to some of the highest standards in the world and are, comparatively, extremely climate efficient. Due to the amount of ‘less carbon efficient’ beef that is imported for the UK, the carbon footprint per kilogram of beef consumed in the UK is higher than the carbon footprint of the beef produced in the UK.
For the full discussion around beef, sheep and dairy, including information about the trade implications of consumer diet trends, new metrics to measure methane and an analysis of grass-fed vs grain-fed livestock, download our full climate change report.
Despite livestock systems often being the focus when it comes to climate change, crops also produce greenhouse gas emissions. This is primarily in the form of nitrous oxide from the manufacture and application of artificial nitrogen fertilisers and carbon dioxide through the loss of soil carbon when cultivating cropland and the fuel used from farm equipment.
What does a low-carbon cropping system look like?
With the most significant greenhouse gas emissions from crops being related to fertiliser use and farm operations, any reduction in fertiliser use and low-impact field cultivations will result in lower greenhouse gas emissions. The CLA Guidance Note on carbon accounting (available here) goes into greater detail about measures to reduce these emissions. Some key ones are:
- Optimising fertiliser use, for example through precision agriculture technology;
- Minimum or no tillage practices;
- Using cover crops or legumes to improve soil health;
- Minimising the number of passes made by farm vehicles
Organic systems, where manufactured fertiliser and pesticide use is reduced or eliminated, clearly have a role to play in reducing the overall nitrous oxide emissions from agriculture, and there are a number of other benefits of organic farming, including to soil carbon, biodiversity and soil health.
For the full discussion around cropping systems, including information about the role of organic systems and how a change in diets would impact crop production in the UK, download our full climate change report.
Pigs and poultry differ significantly from cattle and sheep as they are not ‘ruminant’ animals, meaning they do not process their feed through enteric fermentation and produce methane emissions. For this reason, the Committee on Climate Change considers pigs and poultry to be ‘low emissions’ livestock. The emissions associated with these systems are nitrous oxide from the crops grown to feed them, methane and nitrous oxide from slurry/manure management and carbon dioxide from the energy needed to house them, if housed.
Pork production produces around half the greenhouse gases per kilogram compared with beef or lamb and poultry and eggs is half that again, with nearly half of those emissions associated with the growing, processing and transporting of feeds.
What does a UK low-carbon pig or poultry system look like?
Feed efficiency is the primary way to improve productivity and reduce emissions in pig and poultry systems. This may involve looking at diet, minimising waste and looking into high standards of animal husbandry. For housing, good insulation, equipment maintenance and measuring energy use can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
The production of feed for pigs and chickens is a large proportion of their total carbon footprint, so sourcing sustainably produced feed will make a significant difference to the total footprint.
For the full discussion around pigs and poultry systems, including information about feed imports and the potential around feeding pigs and chickens food waste download our full climate change report.
Over 10 billion tonnes of carbon are stored in UK soils, including grassland, arable land, peatland and forest soils, roughly equal to 80 years of annual UK greenhouse gas emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the top 30cm of the world’s soil contain twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere, making it the largest terrestrial carbon sink. Farming impacts soil health and thus soil carbon stores in both positive and negative ways, so it will be increasingly important for climate change mitigation that land is farmed in a way that maintains and increases soil carbon.
Soil organic matter is primarily made up of carbon and is extremely important for soil health, fertility, water infiltration and retention and food production. Healthy soils with high soil organic matter content can underpin whole farm systems. The FAO has estimated that sustainable soil management could help the world produce up to 58% more food. The CLA Guidance Note on carbon accounting contains information about measuring soil carbon on farms and how to improve soil health.
For the full discussion on soils and climate change, including information on how grazing livestock fit into the picture, download our full climate change report.
Trees absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and release it through respiration, creating biomass that is stored in soil or in the wood, branches and roots of the tree. For that reason, forestry and woodland are crucial to reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and landowners can play a large role here by offsetting their and other sectors’ emissions through tree planting.
Currently around 4 million tonnes of carbon are stored in the UK’s forests and woodland, 75% of it in forest soils, and tree cover accounts for up to 13% of total land use. For context, the annual emissions of the UK in 2017 were around 460 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Ambitious government targets and recommendations from the Committee on Climate Change would see tree cover increase to 17-19% of total land use.
Many CLA members are engaged in forestry and woodland in one way or another and by incorporating trees on farms can help achieve the net-zero goal.
For the full discussion on forestry and woodland, including a discussion on carbon storage vs carbon sequestration and the importance of wood in construction, download our full climate change report.
Both upland and lowland peatland are extremely important assets to the UK from a carbon storage perspective, but also for biodiversity, flood risk management, water quality and agricultural productivity. Peat takes thousands of years to form as plant material decays slowly in wet conditions and is compressed into peat. Waterlogged soils prevent carbon binding to oxygen and thus escaping into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Much of the UK’s peatlands have been drained to allow crops to grow and livestock to graze, turning it from a carbon sink to a source of carbon emissions. Restoring peatland will help reverse this, however lowland peatland is extremely fertile, highly productive agricultural land. There are ways to farm on peatland while keeping it in good condition, known as ‘paludiculture’.
To read more about the role peatland can play in the road to net-zero, download our full report.
Many farms and rural businesses have installed renewable energy in recent years encouraged by Government incentives, rising energy costs and the falling cost of technology. Some do so to cover their own energy supplies and others are able to produce more power than they need and can sell it back to the grid. The different types of renewable energy include:
- Wind turbines
- Solar power
- Micro-hydro systems
- Ground source heat pumps
Crops can also be grown for energy including short rotation coppice and miscanthus for biomass, or other crops for use in anaerobic digestion. When managed and harvested in a sustainable way, biomass can directly displace fossil fuel emissions. Biomass feedstocks can include crops grown specifically for energy (e.g. miscanthus), forestry residues from thinnings, agricultural residues (straw, rice husks) and organic wastes (manures, slurry). These feedstocks can be combusted to produce heat and power, or processed into a range of gases or liquid biofuels for use across the energy system through anaerobic digestion. Bioenergy crops can also provide net carbon benefits for soils.
To read more about what role land ownership and farming can play in the production of renewable energy, read our full climate change report.
The road to net-zero
There is no one way for farmers and landowners to contribute to climate change targets, but rather a series of measures across different farm types and systems that will help us to simultaneously produce crops and livestock, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and take carbon out of the atmosphere. As the only sector of the economy with the ability to naturally absorb and store carbon out of the atmosphere, farmers and landowners are a crucial part of the climate change solution.
The farming and land use sector is on the precipice of a major transformation due to changing consumer patterns, new agriculture policies and opportunities in new public and private environmental markets, including carbon. This is both daunting and exciting, and CLA members need to be at the forefront of the challenge to prove that the industry can be world leaders in climate efficient agriculture.