• Sustainability
    • Environmental

Reducing emissions for agriculture in the UK

  • Article

British farmers, on average, already produce far less carbon emissions than many of their international competitors and landowners are always looking for further ways of increasing efficiency. Alice Ritchie, Land Use Policy Adviser at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), delves into the workings of carbon accounting and examines the ways in which we are already sustainable, where we can improve, and how to maximise our efforts.

The UK Government and the Committee on Climate Change have set very ambitious targets, with the aim of getting the UK to a net zero economy by 2050. Farming and agriculture contribute approximately 10% to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions1, which is fairly low compared to other sectors, and is considered to be a ‘hard to reduce’ sector.

That said, agriculture is the only sector of the economy that can effectively capture and store carbon in both trees and soils. Farmland is by far the best, and most widely available, resource for carbon storage and tree planting can often be a viable option for farmers looking to offset their emissions, if they can overcome the cost barriers.

British farmers are keeping better track of their impact on the environment, using carbon accounting tools to confidently promote the green benefits of farms and to show that they’re part of the solution, not part of the problem. With this transparent approach, it’s far easier for landowners to identify where further improvements can be made.

Creating a carbon account

Measurement and record keeping, in the form of a carbon account, is essential for anyone looking to properly manage their carbon output. What you can’t measure, you can’t manage.

The first step you should take in creating a carbon account is to decide what you want to measure. There are three options: first, a ‘whole holding’ measurement that measures the complete carbon footprint of the entire land, including any crops, animals, tourism businesses or rental properties; second, a ‘per product’ measurement calculating the carbon cost of producing a particular product, for example per kilogram of grain or per litre of milk; and lastly, ‘by enterprise’, which will take a measurement for a specific part of the business, for example grain or beef production.

While keeping a carbon record for the entire business is a very good way of measuring a year on year increase or decrease in emissions, measuring per product or per enterprise provides a clearer benchmark, allowing you to compare your operation with others or the national/global average. The second step is to consider the scope of what you want to measure. How far up or down the supply chain do you want to go?

At the CLA, we recommend focussing on the things you can directly control, like land protection and fertiliser use etc. Although it is worth considering where your supplies come from and where your product goes, so you can be sure you’re making informed choices around your supply chain.

A good way of identifying weak spots in efficiency is to use one of the online tools available, such as the Cool Farm Tool or the Farm Carbon Cutting Calculator. Once you have the figures and can see where you’re able to make changes, the final step is to decide what to do with all that information. It can be used to improve farm carbon efficiency, but also as a marketing tool to promote the farm or simply identify where money can be saved.

Making savings

Precision agriculture techniques for fertiliser is a good example of a way you can significantly reduce emissions. Soil is also very important. Leaving land bare or excessively cultivating it can damage the soil’s ability to retain carbon and is an example of where small gains across large areas of land can make all the difference.

There is, though, no perfect farm system. Organic farms, for example, can’t be said to be universally more environmentally friendly than non-organic. The solution for every farmer is unique, although the common areas for potential savings can usually be traced back to improving efficiency – using only what you need at the right time, keeping a healthy stock of animals or planning the most effective use of farm equipment.

Balancing the account

Balancing a carbon account of any farm comes down to finding equilibrium between improving efficiency and sequestering and storing carbon. If you’re exploring the options of carbon storage through tree planting, there are many organisations that can help, from the Forestry and Woodland Advisors with us at the CLA, to the Woodland Trust or Forestry Commission, to a number of private companies.

When deciding to plant, there is a range of support available. Woodland grant schemes can aid in the upfront costs of planting and maintenance payments are available for fencing, pest control, coppicing etc. Once land has been dedicated to trees, you can value the carbon reduction using the ‘Woodland Carbon Code’, that estimates how much carbon is stored in different tree species, and get paid for that – the CLA can provide further advice on this.

A good way of identifying weak spots in efficiency is to use one of the online tools available.

As well as wood harvesting and selling carbon through a government-backed scheme (Woodland Carbon Credits)2 it is also likely, thanks to new post-Brexit agricultural policies, that farmers will soon be paid for the biodiversity benefits, flood alleviation and water quality improvement that their trees provide. All this is not to say that we should be turning highly productive agricultural land into forestry and there’s still the challenge of land value reduction after planting.

Overall it’s important to find a balance between emission reductions and carbon storage. British farmers are world leaders in green, efficient farming and should be proud of the improvements the sector has already made. There’s still a long way to go but carbon accounting can, at the very least, give farmers a clear direction.

Dr Jude Capper explores sustainability within the Dairy industry, how we can improve, and what messages we should be communicating to the consumer.

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