Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit


27.10.15 Countdown to Paris

So for the next couple of months here at FCCT we are going to do something slightly different in terms of blogs and look at the very exciting (if you like that sort of thing) talks that are coming up in Paris in December.

What are these talks I hear you ask? Well a quick Google search along the lines of COP21 or Paris Climate Talks will bring you up a range of media articles, opinion pieces and some really fascinating EU and United Nations web pages with strategies and rationale and ratification documents, which if you are having any trouble sleeping are my recommended reading.

Here at FCCT, we think these talks are potentially a big deal. As we will discover over the next couple of months, what is (or isn’t) agreed at these talks could have ramifications for our government in terms of targets for carbon reduction, and alongside that, a potential stronger approach to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. If they all talk nicely and reach an agreement, then it will shape the future of what our carbon reduction strategy looks like; if they can’t agree, it will continue being fought out until an agreed reduction target for the period 2020 – 2030 can be finalised.

So one of our missions over the next couple of months is to bring you all the facts and information on what is happening in this exciting time leading up to the climate talks and what it will mean on the ground for managing and sustaining our farming businesses.

To kick off then I thought that we would look at where we are currently and how we have got to the 21st conference of the United Nations framework Convention of Climate change (apologies if you’ve missed the last 20).

I promise to try and not get too bogged down in policy, jargon or European / United Nations history

Here goes

The basic policy

The United Nations framework Convention on Climate Change sets an overall framework for intergovernmental efforts to tackle the challenge posed to us by climate change.

The process was started at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 where countries joined an international treaty to jointly consider what could be done to limit average global temperature increases and cope with the inevitable impacts.

The framework entered into force (by the time they had all agreed) on 21st March 1994, and 195 countries are now signed up to it.

The ultimate aim of the convention is:

“......stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthrogenic (induced by man) interference with the climate system.”

What does it do?

In summary the convention:

1.Recognised that there was a problem (which was a pretty big deal in 1994, when the science wasn’t as sure as it is now)

2.Set a big but specific goal – ultimate objective of convention is to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations

3.Gets developed countries to lead the way. The theory goes that developed countries are the source of most past and current GHG emissions, industrialised countries are expected to do the most to cut emissions on home ground.

4.Directs new funds to climate change activities in developing countries, and this includes industrialised countries sharing knowledge, skills and technologies with less developed nations

5.Keeps tabs on the problem and what is being done about it – including mandatory reporting on emissions levels, what nations climate change policies are and what measures they are implementing

6.Charts the beginning of a path to strike a delicate balance – this deals with accepting the fact that the shape of GHG emissions produced by developing countries as they develop economically will grow, however the convention aims to help such countries limit emissions in a way that won’t hinder economic progress

7.Kick off a formal consideration of adaptation to climate change

Source: The European Commission

Where are we at the moment?

So there are a couple of famous meetings and regulations that have led up to where we are now including:

The Kyoto Protocol

This was developed in 1997, and finally entered into force in 2005. This protocol commits industrialised countries to stabilise GHG emissions by setting binding emissions reduction targets or 37 industrialised countries. The targets add up to an average 5% emissions reduction compared to 1990 levels over the period 2008 – 2012 (1st commitment period).

Doha (8th December 2012)

The Doha Amedment launched a second commitment period of emissions reduction targets, which started on the 1st January 2013 and ran until 2020.

Paris talks in a nutshell

The COP (Conference of parties) which includes all party states, meets every year. At the Paris Summit, the aim is to develop a new international climate change agreement that will cover all 195 countries.

The new agreement is set to be agreed at Paris in December and implemented from 2020.

Climate conferences in Warsaw (2013) and Lima (2014) agreed that all countries had to put forward their proposed emissions reductions targets well ahead of the Paris conference (so its not a case of I left it at home).

The UN would then publish these contributions and report (by the 1st November) to assess whether the proposals are sufficient to keep global warming below 2 degrees.

(Source European Commission)

So its going to be an interesting time. Watch this space for more blogs over the next few weeks which will hopefully keep you informed as to what’s happening.

19.10.15 Loss of soil carbon linked to climate change

Soil and plants store around 5% of the world's carbon, but carbon storage in some soils is in decline. Recent research has found that climate change accounted for 9-22% of carbon declines in organic soils in semi-natural habitats throughout England and Wales from 1978 -2003. The researchers say monitoring soils rich in carbon should be a priority to ensure that more carbon is not released to reinforce climate change. 

Soils accumulate carbon through the decomposition of plant materials and from carbon inputs like manure. Soils also release carbon as carbon dioxide and methane through root respiration and the breakdown of organic matter by microbes. The balance between carbon inputs and outputs determines whether the soil acts as a carbon sink or source.

Rising temperatures and altered rainfall patterns caused by climate change are expected to significantly affect soil processes. If warmer temperatures result in more carbon being lost from soils through respiration than is returned by decaying plant litter, a positive feedback cycle would further amplify the effects of climate change.

Two studies in England and Wales reached different conclusions about the impact of climate change on soil carbon concentrations. A 2005 study based on the National Soil Inventory of England and Wales (NSI) found a decline in soil carbon stocks between two survey periods (1978 - 1983 and 1995 - 2003). The study found that these losses were unrelated to land use - which led the authors to suggest there was a link to climate change. However a separate study in 2007 found no significant change in soil carbon concentrations in the UK between 1978 - 2007.

The present study used soil carbon levels from the first NSI survey to model changes in soil carbon concentrations during the second survey period.

The researchers used the same land-use categories from the original NSI studies, and distinguished between survey sites with organo-mineral / mineral soils and organic soils (which contain >150g of carbon per kg of soil).  They then related estimated changes in average rainfall and temperature, using the UK Meteorological Office's climate data, at each site between survey periods with modelled soil carbon concentrations.

The researchers found that climate change affected the two soils differently. Carbon changes in organo - mineral / mineral soils could be weakly linked to rainfall but not temperature changes, whereas carbon declines in organic soils were strongly related to rising temperatures but insensitive to changes in rainfall.

Only up to 5% of declining carbon concentrations predicted in organo-mineral / mineral soils in agricultural land could be linked to climate change. The researchers concluded that declining carbon concentrations in these soils are more likely the result of reduced carbon inputs due to a reduction in grazing cattle.

In contrast 9-22% of carbon declines in organic soils in semi-natural habitats, such as bogs could be attributed to climate change. The researchers found that when temperatures increased, carbon changes in organic soils followed a similar pattern to bog vegetation changes.

Above an average annual temperature of 7 degrees C moss cover on temperate bogs with peat soils sharply declines and other plants such as trees grow more readily. The researchers suggest that warmer temperatures under climate change may induce plant cover changes which alter the quality of plant litter, returning less carbon to the soil.

These changes in plant cover could be responsible for the falls in carbon concentrations predicted in this study. for example, soil carbon concentrations in organic soils were stable at approximately 425g/kg until temperature reached 7 degrees C after which carbon levels fell as carbon dioxide would be released into the atmosphere.

The researchers say it is important to identify soils with carbon contents between 250 and 425 g/kg. These soils should be prioritised for surveillance to ensure that the carbon within them is not released, thereby contributing to climate change.

Source: Science for Environment Policy, 15th October 2015, Issue 431

19.10.15 Effects of extreme weather, climate and pesticides on farmland invertebrates

Cereal fields provide a staple food, but are also home to a wide array of invertebrates. This study analysed over 40 years of data to investigate the effects of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields in southern England. As pesticide use had a greater effect on abundance than temperature or rainfall, the authors also recommended reducing pesticide use.

Invertebrates  in arable farmland provide vital ecosystem services, including pollination, pest control and nutrient recycling. They are also an important link in the food chain that supports farmland animals and an important source of biodiversity in their own right.

However these invertebrates are under threat from climate change which is increasing the frequency and devertiy of extreme weather events. They are also facing the challenges of agricultural intensification especially increasing pesticide use.

Very few studies have investigated the effects of changes in weather and agricultural intensification together. It is important to understand how arable invertebrates respond to these combined challenges in order to devise mitigation measures.

In this study, researchers determined the impact of extreme weather events, as well as long-term trends in weather and agricultural practices on arable invertebrates. The study was based on a section of farmland on the Sussex Downs, in southern England. The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust has collected data on the invertebrates, plants and birds of this cereal ecosystem as well as its crop management practices, since 1970. Information on the abundance of invertebrates was obtained by sampling 100 cereals fields every year from 1970 - 2011. The 26 most commonly identified taxa were selected for analysis.

Weather conditions were also assessed. A droughts and temperature anomalies are most commonly associated with changes in invertebrate abundance, the researchers focused on monthly mean temperatures and totla monthly precipitation in their analysis. Extreme weather events were identified using data obtained from the UK Met Office and grouped into two categories: cold / wet and hot / dry.

Of the 26 invertebrate groups studied, 11 were found to be sensitive to extreme weather events. However the invertebrates were also remarkably resilient - only two took longer than a year to recover.

Some long-term trends in invertebrate abundance correlated with temperature and rainfall data suggesting that invertebrates are affected by climate change. However by far the most important factor in explaining the trends in abundance was pesticide use.

The researchers went onto investigate whether different habitats could encourage resilience to extreme events. Only habitat position influenced sensitivity to extreme weather events. During cold / wet events, abundance generalls increased from the previous year on west - facing slopes, while it decreased on other slopes, suggesting that west - facing slopes may act as refuges. There were no other clear links between habitat and resilience, suggesting that habitat manipulation is unlikely to offset the effects of extreme weather on invertebrates.

In the long -term, climate change will cause increases in certain groups of organisms, some of which will contain cereal pests. In turn, this will increase the use of insecticides, having an adverse effect on invertebrate populations. The authors say this is the most likely long-term negative impact of climate change on arable invertebrate numbers.

The researchers say using conservation headlands alongside beetle banks, which also protect farmland birds, may help to conserve invertebrates in cereal fields.

Source: Science for Environmental Policy, 8th October, Issue 430

Author: Ewald, J et al, (2015), Influences of extreme weather, climate and pesticide use on invertebrates in cereal fields over 42 years. Global Change Biology, DOI: 10.1111/gcb.13026 

16.10 15 France and soil management

France has a great plan for its soil and its not just about wine

This article is written by Professor John Quinton from Lancaster University and the full link is found here.

French wine lovers have always taken their soil very seriously. But not the country's government has introduced fresh reasons for the rest of the world to pay attention to their terroir.

As industrial emissions of greenhouse gases continue to increase and concerns about climate change grow, scientists and policy makers are searching for potential solutions. Could part of the answer lie in the soil beneath our feet? French agricultural minister Stephane Le Foll thinks so.

Soil stores vast amounts of carbon, far more than all the carbon in the world's forests and atmosphere combined. Plants take carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis and when they die the carbon they stored is returned to the soil.

This forms part of the soil's organic matter, a mix of undecayed plant and animal tissues, transient organic molecules and more stable material often referred to as humus. It is food for organisms in the soil that play a vital role in cycling nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. These organisms decompose the organic material and return much of the carbon to the atmosphere leaving only a small proportion in the soil.

In the UK alone, soils store around 10 billion tonnes of carbon - that's about 65 times the country's annual carbon emissions. Increasing the amount of carbon in our soils has the potential to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere.

At a March 2015 conference on Climate Smart Agriculture, Le Foll proposed the ambitious target of increasing French soil carbon contents by 0.04% year on year ("4 pour mille). How France will meet the target is currently unclear but by throwing down the gauntlet Le Foll clearly wants to stimulate French farmers and researchers into action.

A 0.04% increase might not sound like a lot, but, given the scale of carbon storage in soil and the fact that small increases add up over the years, meeting the target would have a significant impact on atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Le Foll hopes that  protecting carbon rich soils like those in natural bogs, permanent grassland or wetlands, better use of organic manures and farming that returns more plant biomass to the soil (such as by using cover crops and ploughing their residues back into the earth) together with the use of bioenergy crops such as short rotation coppice, can contribute towards a 40% reduction in France's CO2 emissions by 2030. He plans to bring forward an international programme to promote increases in soil carbon and to propose it to the UN climate talks in Paris. Such a programme would include research, innovation and engagement with farmers.

Stuck in the mud?

There is no doubt that this is a bold move. Research has shown that raising soil carbon contents is not that easy due to much of the organic matter added to soils being lost to the atmosphere as it is decomposed by soil microbes. However protecting the carbon we already have in our soils and just storing a little more could make a big difference.

In the UK most soil carbon (by far) is found in peaty soils under bogs, followed by soils under grass, woodland and arable agriculture. Protecting this carbon should be the first priority. That means maintaining and restoring bogs, avoiding conversion of grassland and forestry to arable land or even reconverting arable land to grassland. These measures would all have a positive effect on soil carbon stocks.

Whether all this can deliver the 0.04% increase year on year that the French want is open to debate. What is lcear though is that not only does soil offer a way to store carbon and help mitigate climate change, carbon rich soil has numerous other benefits. It is more fertile and helps to promote food production, it improves the soil's physical properties - it protects against soil erosion and increases water-holding capacity, and it enhances biodiversity.

Promoting practices that increase soil carbon contents really is a win for both the soil and the climate.

14.10.15 The Bug benefits

Soil bugs play a vital role in supporting soil structure and plant growth on grassland farms, but farmers must look after their soil to reap these benefits, warns a leading soil expert. Dr Debbie McConnell, AHDB Dairy R&D manager, finds out why on behalf of Forage for Knowledge.

Soil is full of life. One small handful of soil contains more organisms than the total number of humans who ever lived on Earth, but what are these creatures and how do they influence our soil?

Speaking at a recent AHDB - BGS meeting, soils expert Dr Elizabeth Stockdale outlined the range of organisms in a typical handful of grassland soil. "It is packed with billions of organisms, such as bacteria, fungi, nematodes, mites, springtails, earthworms, insects, and millipedes, most of which are too small to see with the naked eye.

Dr Stockdale, the main author of the AHDB website explained that these organisms played many essential roles in the soil including:

Powering nitrogen fixation

Recycling nutrients into plant available form

Developing a sponge like structure to regulate water retention and drainage

"These organisms influence most of the processes which take place in the soil and, as a result, are essential for plant growth - no plant will grow in a sterile soil," she comments.

So how can farmers help encourage these organisms in the soil?

"Just by having plants in the soil all year round you are helping these bugs survive." explained Dr Stockdale. "Plants release carbohydrates and sugars into the soil through their roots, which provide a food source for other organisms." 

Other organisms then consume these bacteria and fungi, breaking then down into vital nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate, which are readily available for the plant roots to absorb.  As a result the organisms benefit from the plant roots and vice versa.

Adding organic matter such as farmyard manure (FYM), composts and slurry is also important to encourage soil biology, providing a key source of energy for many organisms. This is backed by recent research at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, showing that earthworm populations were five times higher on plots that received slurry each year than those that only received inorganic fertilisers.

However to get this benefit, Dr Stockdale advises managing organic manure inputs carefully. When earthworms come into contact with slurry, the high concentration of ions can extract body fluids from shallow skinned earthworms by osmosis, killing the worm. The risk is much lower with farmyard manure as the nutrients are less concentrated.

"Organic matter input is important so try and make sure most fields across the farm receive some . With slurry, try a little and often approach to minimise any detrimental impact on soil organisms, " she said.

Another key factor to help soil organisms survive is good soil structure. "When soils are compacted the air spaces are squeezed out, removing oxygen which is vital for organisms to survive" said Dr Stockdale.

"Regularly assessing soil structure and soil testing is something every farmer can do themselves to make sure their soil can support a range of soil organisms which in turn will aid grass growth, nutrient use efficiency and water retention."

Who's who in the soil environment

Earthworms. There are three main types commonly found in UK soils: epigeic, endogeic and anecic. Anecic earthworms are particularly good at improving soil structure, making large vertical channels throughout the soil.

Mites are the smallest (usually less than 1mm) and also the most diverse group of arthropods in soil and therefore show a very wide range of feeding habits and lifestyles.  The presence of these microarthropods markedly increases decomposition rates across a range of environments.

Nematodes are microscopic roundworms with a diameter of <50 micrometres. Different species of nematodes play different roles in the soil. Some feed of plant residues while others break down bacteria and fungi in the soil into vital nutrients.

Fungi - Fungal hyphae are usually 2-micrometers in diameter, but can extend to up to a kilometre in length. Fungi are involved in a large number of interactions and processes in soil. They are often found in close proximity to plant roots.

Bacteria are single -celled prokaryotes. The large majority of bacteria existing in soil (>95%) are not culturable and so for a long time could not be studied. Bacterial in the soil often have the ability to 'slow-down' metabolic activity and maintain activity in a dormant state, event under conditions of very low energy and nutrient availability.

For more information visit the Healthy Grassland Soils pages on the AHDB website pages.

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