Climate change is rising rapidly up government’s agenda and new agriculture policy post-Brexit will give landowners and farmers an opportunity to consider both how to reduce their emissions and how to adapt to a warming world. The UK has committed to reducing emissions by 80% below 1990 levels by 2050 and is currently not on track to meet that target. While the energy, waste and construction sectors continue to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, the agriculture industry’s emissions have remained the same for the past seven years.
We are also seeing the impacts of climate change in the weather patterns, with hotter, drier summers and warmer winters. Farmers and landowners are well-versed in responding to change, but climate change may bring a new set of challenges. Changes in water security, higher risks of drought and flooding and possibly new invasive pests and diseases are all likely in the coming decades, but there are a number of ways landowners can adapt to these.
The two main greenhouse gases contributed by agriculture are methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fertiliser use. However, healthy soils can store carbon dioxide for a very long time and trees absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While it will be difficult to completely offset agricultural emissions with soils and forestry, there are a number of ways landowners and farmers can start thinking about climate change and land use. These include:
As they grow, trees use sunlight to absorb carbon dioxide and store it as carbon in their wood. Additionally, trees slow water flows, increase flood resilience and promote biodiversity. The government has a target to plant 11 million trees across the countryside, so this will likely be incentivised in new land use policies.
Landowners are encouraged to plant trees where possible. This could include hedgerows, riparian planting or on marginal land.
Nitrous oxide from nitrogen-based fertilisers is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Precision farming involves technology to accurately measure how much fertiliser is needed so that the right amount can be applied in the right place, reducing waste and runoff. This has the dual benefit of increasing yields and improving uniformity.
Animal health and welfare and nutrition
Ruminant livestock (cows and sheep) contribute 57% of all agricultural emission. Healthier animals emit less methane, so ensuring animals are kept healthy is important to reduce emission.
Warmer temperatures may have some impacts on animal welfare, including heat-related diseases and stress, as well as exposure to extreme weather events, including drought and flooding. Making sure animals have sufficient water, feed and shelter, particularly in difficult periods, helps farmers adapt to climate change.
Healthy soils are crucial to mitigating climate change, as they sequester carbon, improve yields, reduce fertiliser use and prevent run-off. Maintaining permanent pasture by grazing low density livestock is an efficient way for landowners to retain soil health.
Some agricultural practices like tilling, removing crop residue and over-using fertilisers and pesticides reduce the quality of soil so less carbon is stored. It is important to make sure agricultural soils stay healthy to ensure they remain an efficient carbon sink.
Climate change – factsheet:
- UK climate change targets require an 80% reduction in emissions by 2050.
- Agriculture contributes around 10% of total UK emissions, made up of:
o Methane from livestock and manure management
o Nitrous oxide from fertilisers
o Carbon dioxide from farm transport and production
- We are already seeing the impacts of climate change in the weather patterns. This will intensify over the coming decades with:
o Warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers;
o Higher levels of rainfall and severe weather events;
o Longer, more frequent droughts;
o Increased risk of new pests and diseases.