U.K. has a plan to harness its land to hit net zero emissions

The U.K. has a plan on how to use its land to hit its goal of zeroing out greenhouse-gas emissions by the middle of the century. It’ll will require a total transformation in the way farmers, land managers and consumers operate to work.

Greenhouse gas emissions from land use and agriculture in Britain haven’t fallen at the same rate as other industries over the last three decades. To reach net zero by 2050, emissions coming from the way land is used must be slashed by 64per cent, according to the first in-depth study of the issue published by the Committee on Climate Change, a panel advising the government on environmental issues.

Sweeping changes will be required across the U.K. economy to meet the government’s ambitious net-zero goal, which has been enshrined in law. Agriculture makes up about 12 per cent of the nation’s emissions and won’t be able to avoid that transformation.

The report released Thursday by the nation’s independent climate change adviser maps out possible routes for lawmakers to cut emissions. Those include tree planting, low-carbon farming, restoring peatlands, stimulating bioenergy crops, reducing food waste and changing diets.

Should the ruling Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government take on all the advice, the measures would cost about 1.4 billion pounds ($1.8 billion) a year. The net social benefit could be as much as 4 billion pounds a year, the committee said. As a comparison, the U.K. currently pays in 3.3 billion pounds a year into the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy in 2018.

“This is a report of how you do it,” John Gummer, chair of the CCC, said in a briefing. “This is a key moment because we are now moving from good hearted determination, commitments, electoral discussions to delivery. It now has to fall to the government to supply the means.”

Trees, Trees and More Trees

Planting new forests and restoring old ones has become a major focal point for climate mitigation and is seen as an easy political win in the U.K. During the last general election, all major parties made commitments for some form of reforestation program. The CCC said the U.K. should increase land covered by forests to at least 17 per cent by 2050, up from 13per cent now. That would still be well short of the average across the European Union of 33 per cent.

For the U.K., this means planting as many as 120 million broad-leaf or conifer trees every year until in the 2050s. That could serve as the nation’s contribution to the World Economic Forum's initiative to plant 1 trillion trees around the world by 2030, which was announced earlier this week in Davos, Switzerland.

Farmers and land managers aren’t likely to do this on their own. The committee suggests using existing market instruments to give incentives for planting programs. Those could include a kind of feed-in tariff, like the mechanism that underpinned the boom in renewable capacity, or a carbon trading facility. Both of those could be funded by a levy on greenhouse gas polluters, the body suggested.

Cutting It Out

Slashing farm-related emissions shouldn’t come at the expense of producing less food or importing more from countries with looser regulations, the CCC said. To effectively cut harmful farming emissions such as methane and ammonia, the U.K. should encourage the use of controlled-release fertilizers, which produce fewer harmful pollutants over time. It also could sharpen regulation of livestock health and look at ways that selective breeding in cattle can reduce methane. Those policies along with more low-carbon fuels could save the equivalent of 10 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2050.

Bio-Energy Crops

New policies should accelerate and expand the growth of bio-energy crops to about 23,000 hectares every year to 2050, the panel said. Carbon pricing could be used to ensure long-term supply, and biomass facilities should commit to sourcing a certain proportion of their raw materials from the U.K. instead of importing them from abroad. Lawmakers should also help with the use of biomass as a fuel with carbon, capture and storage.

“This government is talking quite a green game, but people are waiting to see what it means in terms of actual policy,” Jonathan Marshall, head of analysis at the of Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit, said in an interview. “There will be more freedom to reallocate money, such as the sum spent on the Common Agricultural Policy. That wouldn’t have been possible inside the EU, but it will become possible after Brexit.”

Other highlights from the report:

  • Restore at least 50 per cent of upland peat and 25 per cent of lowland peat to reduce emissions by five million tons of CO2 equivalent by 2050
  • Reduce by 20 per cent the 13.6 million tons of annual U.K. food waste and cut the consumption of beef, lamb and dairy by at around 20 per cent per person

© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.