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Achieving Net Zero - NFU tackles the Climate Change challenge

11th Sep 2019

SOURCE: NFU- Achieving Net Zero by 2040

Tuesday 10th September, the NFU unveiled its vision of how British farming hopes to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040. 

The NFU's new report, Achieving Net Zero, outlines how the goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be made possible across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040. This will be the agriclutural sectors' contribution to the UK’s ambition of net zero by 2050. 

Research shows that emissions from UK farms presently amount to 45.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent a year – about 1/10th of the UK's GHG emissions. But in stark contrast to the rest of the economy only 10 per cent of this is CO2. Around 40% is nitrous oxide (N2O) and 50% is methane (CH4).

WHY DO WE NEED TO ACT NOW? 

With climate change becoming an ever growing threat it is important that we act to slow and even prevent detrimental climatic effects, such as extreme weather events and rising atmospheric temperatures. Earlier this year Britain became the first major world economy to legislate for net zero emissions, aiming to end the contribution of UK economic production activities to climate change over the next 30 years. Many other countries and forward thinking companies are expected to follow suit, raising hopes that the worst effects of climate change can be avoided in the near future.

WHY IS AGRICULTURE PART OF THE CLIMATE CHANGE SOLUTION? 

Agriculture and other land-based economies are uniquely placed to be part of the solution to climate change, as they are both a GHG emissions source and a sink. There are multiple ways in which farming processes, including growing crops, production of biogases and energy fuels, can capture CO2, from the air and turn it into a wide range of foods, fibres and fuels. Farmers also have the ability to protect carbon reserves already present in soils and vegetation by carrying out more modern farming techniques, such a reduced/zero tillage and pasture-fed livestock.

Emissions from UK farms currently amount to about 10% of UK GHG emissions as stated above. Therefore, agriculture has a huge responsibility in cutting these harmful gases. Reducing these emissions is more difficult than cutting carbon dioxide, because they result from complex natural soil and animal microbial processes. But by enhancing the ability to capture carbon, we can use it to generate ‘negative emissions’ – actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere to balance the CH4 and N2O emissions from food production.

Agricultural businesses need to be part of the solution as the overall impacts faced and caused by climate change will inevitebly have a huge, negative, effect on the industry. Farmers and growers are already facing weather extremes of cold, drought and flooding - which are all expected to worsen in the near future if changes are not made. 

THE NFU'S PLAN: 

The report sets out three pillars of activity that will help the industry to reach its ambitious goal. These are:

  • Improving farming’s productive efficiency
  • Improving land management and changing land use to capture more carbon
  • Boosting renewable energy and the wider bio-economy.

The first of these pillars is about reducing emissions, using a wide variety of techniques to enhance productivity and deliver the same output or more from every farm, and working smarter to use fewer inputs. To enable this the introduction of new environmental schemes from Defra will be needed as well as support from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

The second is about increasing farming’s ability to capture more carbon through bigger hedgerows, more trees and woodland, enhancing soil organic matter and conserving existing carbon stores in grassland and pasture. This goal will largely be achieved via soil carbon sequestration and will require Defra support for a network of demonstration farms and the development of a mechanism for reward payments.

The third pillar involves displacing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through bioenergy and using bio-based materials for infrastructure - such as hemp fibre and sheep wool for insulation. GHG removal through photosynthesis and carbon capture is a key part of the NFU ambition for achieving net zero. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is the process of producing energy from organic matter and capturing and storing the carbon produced, which could deliver huge GHG savings. 

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: 

To achieve these goals farmers must work with governement, industry and academics. In order to reach this 'Net Zero' goal investments and changes in government policy, technology and research will be required. 

As well as this, measuring progress and reporting on the project is essential if we are to achieve the net zero goal, as well as establishing rewards (monetary or other) for those who are making progress in reaching the zero emissions goal. 

Therefore, the next step needed is a pilot/ experimental project which would follow the NFU Net Zero plan and feedback into some of the remaining uncertainties in the project, inculding rewards. This would enable the creation of a suitable and effective framework for farmers to follow and achieve the Net Zero ambition.