Climate Change & Farming

“We all have a duty to do whatever we can to help save our planet from global warming” …The words of David Attenborough speaking last week in the BBC Documentary “Climate Change – The Facts”. Rarely do we see global warming explained in such simple terms and in such a matter of fact and non-sensational way. Swedish schoolgirl climate change activist – Greta Thunberg gave the powerful message in the same programme, “if your house is burning, you don’t first check your insurance, you take action and call the fire brigade! …The same applies to climate change, the planet is overheating and now is the time to take that action”

Whichever way you look at climate change there is very little doubt that it is happening and we only have to see the now commonplace extreme weather events around the world to confirm our worst fears.

The UK Government have set a legally binding target to reduce emissions by at least 80% by the year 2050, and those targets have now come under the spotlight again following the UN Paris Agreement signed in 2015.

The latest news is that the UK Government asked its climate advisers in October 2018 to set a date for zero greenhouse gas emissions right across the economy, including transport, industry and farming.

Another piece of news we may have missed in January when Brexit dominated the headlines, was the NFU declaring that farming should become net zero in greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 at the very latest.

As for farming, one fact which seems to come up time after time in the climate change debate is that beef, lamb and milk production all give out high greenhouse gas emissions, and this was again highlighted in David Attenborough’s documentary.

The universally agreed fact is that livestock farming is responsible for 5% of UK greenhouse gas emissions and that same figure is the target for a lot of “eat less meat” campaigns. However, the argument does not take into account the other side – which is that 60% of land in the UK is made up of grassland with no alternatives to livestock farming. NFU Scotland Vice President – Martin Kennedy told me “You simply cannot plough most of this land on hillsides … grass is the only crop available and converting that grass into protein for human consumption is the job of our livestock farmers”

However, the most important fact is virtually never quoted and that is grassland is a hugely important “sink” for carbon emissions. It has been estimated that grassland which is regularly cut and grazed is one of the most important ways of taking carbon out of the atmosphere and putting it back into the soil, in a process called carbon capture. There is currently a lot of work being done on how effective grassland is compared to woodland when it comes to carbon capture and right now the jury is out, but there is no doubt that the 18 million acres of grass in the UK do play a hugely important part in the greenhouse gas story.

It is easy to point the finger at other sectors when it comes to climate change and farmers are very often an easy target, but consider the following league table of greenhouse gas emissions and agriculture is far from the main culprit:

Transport 26%

Energy Supply 25%

Business 17%

Residential 14%

Livestock Farming 5%

Other Farming 5%

Waste Management 4%

Other 4%

Most farmers are already using methods designed to use less fuel and fertilisers which are some of the main offenders in carbon emissions. After all, these are two of the highest input costs for farmers and no-one wants to spend more than they have to!

Farmers have also been quick to see the benefits of renewable energy with 4 in every 10 agriculture units now benefitting from wind, solar PV, hydro and even waste product methane electricity generation.

In the next column I’ll be looking at this and other ways some farmers are reducing their carbon footprint such as cutting down on use of the plough (minimal tillage) and thinking about long-term resilience in the face of dry summers and other extreme weather conditions.

It is too easy to get caught up in the here and now of Brexit battles, but politicians should be taking a more positive lead in the bigger picture of climate change.

@farmerjonesy