The Paris Agreement demands tougher action to remove greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere. We must, at the same time, prepare for the inevitable climate change that is already happening. In this context, current uses of land in the UK must change.
Today, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) publishes two linked reports:
‘Land use: Reducing emissions and preparing for climate change’ finds that fundamental reform is required to ensure land becomes a more effective carbon store. The critical services we receive from the land; clean water, healthy soils, wildlife, timber and food, are threatened by a warming climate. Government can address these concerns, while ensuring sufficient food production for an increasing population and space for new homes.
‘Biomass in a low-carbon economy’ considers the role of biomass – wood, plants and organic waste – in the global strategy to tackle climate change. Biomass can play an important role in meeting the UK’s long-term (2050) emissions targets, and moving towards net-zero emissions, but only with stricter governance to ensure sustainable supplies. Current UK energy uses will need to change.
There is now an opportunity, especially through the new Agriculture and the Environment Bills, to define a better strategy for our land to meet the goals of the UK Climate Change Act.
- Climate change impacts are already altering the land’s use, while the services provided by the natural environment are being degraded. Average UK temperatures have risen by 0.8°C over the last forty years; with nine of the ten warmest years for the UK occurring since 2002. Loss of soil fertility, biodiversity and peatland degradation are now apparent, in large part driven by intensive food production. Projections of future UK climate suggest further warming, sea level rise, periods of heavier rain leading to greater risks from flooding as well as reduced water availability in summer. Despite some opportunities, the negative impacts on our soils, water, vegetation and wildlife are likely to be significant.
- Land is a critical natural resource, but past policies governing the use of UK land have been fragmented and incomplete. Under the Common Agricultural Policy and its predecessors, food production has been rewarded over other services that the land can provide. Change provides the opportunity to maximise the use of land as a natural store for carbon and as a regulator of natural hazards such as flooding.
- New land-use policy must promote radically different uses of UK land to support deeper emissions reductions and improve resilience to climate change impacts. This includes increased tree planting, improved forest management, restoration of peatlands, and shifts to low-carbon farming practices, which improve soil and water quality. These will help to reduce flood risk and improve the condition of semi-natural habitats such as woodlands and wetlands
- Alternative uses of land can be economic for farmers and land managers, but Government must provide help for them to transition. Assistance is needed with skills, training and information to implement new uses of land. Support for high up-front costs and financing to aid that transition are also required. Land managers must have better access to information about the impacts of a changing climate.
The Committee also finds an important role for biomass in reducing and removing UK emissions, but only if certain critical criteria are met. It recommends:
- The UK should aim to increase the volume of carbon stored in our forests and land. The supply of sustainable biomass harvested from UK sources should also increase. Government must increase tree-planting from 9000 hectares per year on average to 20,000 hectares by 2020 and 27,000 hectares by 2030, and extend this further to 2050. This should go alongside planting energy crops on low-quality land.
- Food and biodegradable waste must be collected separately from other refuse in all areas across the UK. By 2025, no biodegradable waste such as food, paper, card, wood, textiles and garden waste should be sent to landfill.
- Rules governing the supply of sustainable sources of biomass for energy need to be improved. Without sustainable land management practices and careful control of ‘lifecycle emissions’, use of biomass for energy production can have a worse impact on the climate than the ongoing use of fossil fuels. The long-term role of biomass imports to the UK must therefore depend on improved regulation of their supply. High-GHG sources (for example, tracts of forest harvested just for energy) should be clearly regulated out of use and better practice encouraged, such as the use of organic waste. The UK must lead a global shift towards improved monitoring and reporting techniques of biomass stocks (e.g. using satellite data) and use a broader range of policy levers (e.g. trade and development policy, standards, procurement and finance rules).
- Biomass must be used in the most effective way. Uses that enable long-term carbon storage should be prioritised. The use of biomass must not exceed the levels of sustainable material that are currently available. Steps should include a substantial increase in the use of wood in the construction of buildings, the development of key technologies including carbon capture and storage, the phasing out of large-scale biomass power plants that do not capture and store their emissions, phasing out biofuel use in cars and vans in the 2030s, and supporting the use of biofuels in aviation (up to 10% of demand).
Lord Deben, Chairman of the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said:
“Land is our most precious natural asset but the way we use land in this country needs fundamental reform. We must ensure our use of land helps to reduce the emissions that are warming our atmosphere. We must also improve the resilience of the land to climate change. New legislation on agriculture and the environment provide us with a unique opportunity to reward land owners and farmers for actions such as tree planting, restoring peatlands and improving soil and water quality.
“We need a new conversation about the role that biomass can play in helping to meet the UK’s climate change targets. If 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. Unsustainable supplies of biomass have no place in our future energy mix.”