Talk of reaching ‘net zero’ is frequently discussed in the media but what does net zero look like for agriculture? Powernews takes a closer look…
The tiny kingdom of Bhutan, deep in the Himalayas, might appear to have little in common with the South American Republic of Suriname, some 9,000 miles away.
Yet they are the only two countries anywhere in the world to have met the goal – agreed at the 2015 Paris Climate Summit – to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic [i.e. human] emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases” by the second half of the 21st century.
As the first of the world’s major economies to enshrine its net zero commitment in law, the UK is a good place to start. “Imagine how a Green Industrial Revolution could transform life across our United Kingdom,” said Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announcing his plan to drive a post-pandemic recovery2. He proposes to make the UK a world leader in green technology, delivering net zero emissions in every industry.
It’s a commitment that’s been matched by the National Farmers Union (NFU). Recognising that agriculture can be part of the solution – by acting as a sink for emissions – the NFU has set an ambitious goal to have the country’s agricultural industry reach net zero by 2040, despite today accounting for around one-tenth of the UK’s total GHG emissions3.
The NFU acknowledges that a range of measures will be needed to achieve this, falling under three broad headings: improving productive efficiency; improving land management and changing land use to capture more carbon; and boosting renewable energy and the wider bioeconomy. It’s not about organic versus conventional farming, instead focusing on what’s sustainable and putting the health of soil – with its vast carbon sequestering capacity – at the heart of everyone’s farming plan. Coupled with this will be the technology improvements – precision farming that eliminates unnecessary fuel use, through more accurate and efficient applications; gene editing that improves crop efficiencies; and carbon pricing schemes that recognise the value of farmland in storing carbon for the long-term.
British supermarkets too have signalled their enthusiasm for net zero, with one of British farming’s biggest customers pledging to be the first supermarket to be completely supplied by net zero farms by 2030.
Around the world, the agricultural sector is one of the industries most heavily subsidised by the public purse. Despite reforms in some legislations, such as the European Union, the level of subsidy continues to rise. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) figures put the sum at $619 billion, a near-doubling in ten years4.
There’s growing recognition that this public support needs to be applied differently, away from production – the concept of ‘decoupled payments’. Again, it’s a key feature of the UK government’s new approach to agriculture: farmers will continue to receive a public subsidy but, rather than supporting production, it will instead be directed towards environmental ‘public goods’. These will include biodiversity initiatives (thus promoting land-use change) and schemes to encourage alternative agricultural practices with lower emissions. And in the EU27, the new Green Deal Farm to Fork Strategy5 promises to make the EU food system, including the Common Agricultural Policy, ‘fair, healthy and environmentally friendly’, contributing towards the EU’s 2050 climate neutrality targets.
Encouraged to plant a tree for every flight we take, we’ve come to believe that trees and forests are the carbon sinks on which we need to concentrate. But there’s increasing evidence that grasslands may be more reliable carbon stores than forests, particularly in the long-term.
A study from UC Davis6 found that while trees stored more carbon than grasslands, forests in some parts of the world are increasingly vulnerable to fires. The underground carbon, stored in grasslands’ massive biomass, is less susceptible to release in the event of fire or drought.
The trouble with grasslands is their agricultural attractiveness: deep and fertile soils, which sees around 1.7 million hectares lost each year7. In a bid to arrest the loss, researchers have developed a methodology to measure and verify the carbon sequestered by grasslands. This has allowed grassland owners to sell carbon credits to businesses, offering a chance to ‘erase your carbon footprint’, by supporting farmers who adopt sustainable farming practices, whether through grassland or other means.
Collaboration will be key to help agriculture reach the net zero goal. Farmers must be prepared to adapt their practices, but to do so they’ll need readily available solutions from their suppliers. Consumers, too, will likely need to pay more as they consider the environmental impact of the food they buy and eat. And governments around the world will have to consider how they support their agricultural industries, if agriculture is to help the world towards net zero, rather than hinder that ambition.
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