Land restoration and carbon sinks ‘can help farmers save £100bn by 2050’

Green Alliance has called on the UK Government to focus on incentivising farmers and land managers to contribute to the net-zero commitment through tree planting methods, rather than focusing on carbon capture technologies, stating that it could save taxpayers £100bn by 2050.

Land restoration and carbon sinks ‘can help farmers save £100bn by 2050’

A new report from environmental think tank Green Alliance, published on Friday (20 January), calls for the Government to incentivise the agricultural sector to focus on woodland and peatland creation and restoration over expensive technologies that can remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

The Green Alliance claims that farmers and landowners can be huge contributors to the UK’s net-zero transition by transforming farmland into carbon sinks. The report suggests that around 10% of the “least productive farmland” in the UK would be managed for nature restoration projects such as wetlands, woodlands and extensively grazed grasslands by 2030. This would then rise to 33% by 2050, when the net-zero commitment will need to be met.

The report claims that farming with agroecological methods would need to increase from 3% of farmland currently to 60% by 2050.

Green Alliance warns that failing to convert sufficient levels of farmland into carbon sinks would come with a hefty price tag. The report states that the UK would be forced to import large quantities of biomass, such as wood pellets, to generate negative emissions from bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This, the report states, could add £100bn to the cost of the delivery of net-zero by 2050.

Public support for biomass – with or without carbon capture – does not seem to be strong in the UK. In a 2020 YouGov poll, 55% of respondents said the Government should not subsidise biomass and more than three-quarters said biomass should not be classed as renewable. Additionally, green groups have written to ministers to question whether BECCs operations in the UK should be subsidised.

Green Alliance’s policy analyst Lydia Collas said: “The UK can be genuinely world leading in restoring nature and supporting net zero farming. But we need a plan to make a success of how we use land to restore nature, cut carbon, and grow food.

“Our report shows that the government has a choice to make. It can support farmers to store carbon and reverse the decline in nature by creating lots of new natural habitats, or it can throw billions at bioenergy.”

Land Use Frameworks

The report notes that how wildlife and nature creation are managed will also need to be carefully considered by farmers. The report claims that the withdrawal of basic payments due to poor land management could leave around 40% of farms insolvent, with some losing around £4,900 annually.

There is a risk that small farms become amalgamated “as some landowners seek to generate profit through economies of scale”. One such risk is private investment in carbon offsetting that sees land sold off cheaply to companies, whereas new government policies that incentivise climate mitigation would enable farmers and land owners to retain ownership and increase their incomes.

One of the key recommendations of Chris Skidmore’s Net-Zero Review, published last week, is for the Government to outline a land-use framework aligned to the net-zero target this year. See edie’s timeline of all the key policy recommendations from the review here.

The Government has committed to leaving nature in a better state for the next generation but, according to its own independent environmental watchdog, is nowhere near on track to delivering this ambition.

According to the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP), there has been year-on-year improvement in some areas relating to the UK Government’s key environmental goals, including improving air quality; reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving climate adaptation.

Nonetheless, the rate of progress has not been rapid enough to put England on track to meet new legally binding targets – even though these targets, in and of themselves, have been broadly criticised as unambitious.

A breakthrough has been delivered as to how farmers will be incentivised to promote sustainable agriculture practices, although not all green groups are happy with the proposals.

Earlier this month, the Government concluded its review of post-Brexit subsidies for those working in agriculture. The review was due to wrap up late last year but delays ensued amid two consecutive changes in Prime Minister.

The Government has confirmed that that the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) will begin making payments under its new Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) every quarter rather than every year. The SFI has been created to pay farmers for ‘common goods’ – not only their products, but the value they can preserve and create in nature. It has begun with payments for maintaining or improving soil quality and will, in time, be expanded to cover water, biodiversity and other metrics.

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