‘Fundamental’ agriculture reforms needed for UK to reach carbon neutrality, says CCC

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has today (15 November) urged ministers to implement policies that will "fundamentally reform" the way in which the UK's land is used, in order to create carbon sinks and accelerate progress towards carbon neutrality.

In two linked reports on the state of Britain’s current land use and biomass policies, the Government’s official climate change watchdog has set out recommendations for an Agriculture and the Environment Bill which balances the preservation of biodiversity and natural resources with meeting the needs of a growing population.

“Land is our most precious natural asset – but the way we use land in this country needs fundamental reform,” CCC chair Lord Deben said.

“New legislation on agriculture and the environment provide us with a unique opportunity to reward landowners and farmers for actions such as tree planting, restoring peatlands and improving soil and water quality.”

The report on land use reveals that the way in which British land is used has already altered due to a 0.8C temperature rise on pre-industrial levels, leading to degradation of natural resources such as soil, water and peatland. To rectify this issue, the CCC recommends the planting of 1.5 million hectares of new forest and 1.2 million hectares of bioenergy crops by 2050, combined with a 26-36% reduction in grasslands.

The report also urges ministers to join up previous “fragmented” and “incomplete” policies governing land use, claiming that profits from food production have historically been prioritised over environmental concerns.

A further recommendation of the report is for the Government to implement legislation that promotes “radically different” uses of land, including the construction of semi-artificial wetlands, woodlands and peat bogs. Such a move, the CCC argues, would support deeper emissions reductions and improve resilience to climate change impacts.

The CCC estimates that if its recommendations on land use were to be implemented in full, the UK’s annual carbon footprint would be up to 40MTCO2e lower by 2050 than it was in 2017. A further benefit would be a 20-50% reduction to the amount of food wasted each year nationwide, against the same deadline.

The findings come after a similar study by WWF, which concluded that the agricultural sector can provide up to 30% of the solutions needed by 2030 to tackle the global climate crisis.

Green fuels or greenwashing?

The CCC’s second report, entitled biomass in a low-carbon economy, concludes that biomass can only play the role it needs to in the UK’s transition towards net-zero if stricter governance to ensure sustainable supplies is implemented.

While the burning of wood, plants and organic waste has historically been hailed as a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, the report warns that biomass can actually have a more detrimental environmental impact than coal, diesel or gas, when lifecycle emissions are accounted for.

In order to mitigate this risk, the CCC has recommended that the use of biofuels from “high-emission” sources such as at-risk forests should be clearly regulated out of use across the UK.

The body has also called for a phase-out of large-scale biomass power plants that do not capture and store their emissions by 2030, coupled with a similar phase out for the use of biofuels in cars and vans.

However, the CCC argues in the report that biofuel uptake should be spurred within the carbon-heavy aviation sector in order to encourage the shift away from fossil fuels.

Similarly, it notes that biomass which is certified as sustainable could meet 5-15% of the UK’s energy needs by 2050, if the nation “exploits” its organic waste streams efficiently.

“Unsustainable supplies of biomass have no place in our future energy mix,” Deben added.

“If the supply of biomass is more strictly governed, its use can be sustainable and it can play an essential role in reducing emissions, locking away carbon in plants and soils.”

The report comes just days after the European Parliament voted to approve a set of new clean energy laws for 2030, outlining plans to phase out the sale of high-emission biofuels made from palm and soybean oil. Such fuels reportedly generate up to three times the amount of emissions of fossil fuels, when a life-cycle analysis is applied.

Industry reaction

The Anaerobic Digestion & Bioresources Association (ADBA) chief executive Charlotte Morton

“With regard to land use, the CCC is absolutely right about the need for fundamental reform to ensure land becomes a more effective carbon store. Anaerobic digestion (AD) plants produce nutrient-rich, natural fertiliser that helps to restore organic matter and NPK and lock carbon into soils, and the AD industry would like to see greater recognition from government of how this can help to improve the health of the UK’s soils.”

Biomass UK’s, (part of the Renewable Energy Association) head Benedict McAleenan

“We strongly support the CCC’s findings, which show the important role of biomass in the UK’s long-term energy system. Crucially, they point out that trying to combat climate change without biomass would be harder and more expensive.

“Well-regulated biomass can provide benefits for forestry, agriculture and our energy system, backing up technologies like wind and solar. In the future, it will be combined with carbon capture to actually remove carbon from the atmosphere – a crucial role if we’re to stop climate change.”

The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) director Richard Black

“The report makes clear that bringing climate change into farming can generate real win-win options. In particular, increasing agricultural productivity to levels seen in France and the Netherlands would increase food output while also freeing up land for trees and energy crops.

“This, in turn, would begin to make negative emissions a reality, allowing the UK to move down the road to delivering a net zero economy and ending its contribution to climate change. But it is also clear that this will not happen without leadership from Government, with Defra playing a central role in combining policies on food, nature and climate change.”

Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole

“This is a wake-up call for a complacent government that we must completely transform the way we use land, to avoid climate breakdown and make space for nature.

“As the Committee on Climate Change says, we need to free up land from agriculture by eating much less meat and dairy, and stop landowners burning and degrading peat bogs – our single biggest carbon store.”

Sarah George

Comments (1)

  1. Richard Phillips says:

    While the burning of wood, plants and organic waste has historically been hailed as a “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, the report warns that biomass can actually have a more detrimental environmental impact than coal, diesel or gas, when lifecycle emissions are accounted for"

    I commented a few days ago, why are we burning 7 million tonnes of wood every year at Drax???

    Whole mature trees are being felled, en masse, the infrastructure needed to handle the huge quantities of wood chip is prodigious.

    When burned, only the carbon generates heat, and about 6% is wasted in boiling away the combined water content of the wood. Yes, a rotten deal.

    And the degradation of peatland. Once peat is disturbed, it degrades progressively, it cannot be stopped. Wind turbine bases, large constructions many on remote peatland degrade it very efficiently. Large areas have been destroyed in Wales. Hillsides are very vulnerable to landslide.

    Sense from the CCC at last

    Richard Phillips

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