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Our farming future is key to balancing our carbon budget

Professor Tim Benton, Director of Energy, Environment and Resources at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and co-author of the IPCC’s Special Report on Food, Land and Climate (2019), explains why helping farmers to become 'Net Zero Heroes' is so vital to solving our nature crisis and balancing our carbon chequebook.

In 2015, most of the world signed the Paris Climate Agreement, aiming to jointly limit climate change to “well under 2 degrees”. This means limiting our emissions through a “carbon budget”, in order to halt climate change. Once our budget is spent, we must have balanced our carbon chequebook – for every tonne of greenhouse gas emitted, we need to remove a tonne from the atmosphere, achieving net zero emissions.

If we don’t achieve this carbon budget balance, the risks are well known: polar ice melting, sea levels rising, extreme drought and flooding, and irreversible declines in wildlife, with huge impacts on our human population. But what is less well explained is how we become ‘net zero’.

One vital way we can cut carbon dioxide is by using biology. Plants turn carbon dioxide into sugar, allowing them to capture and fix CO2. The concept of “net zero carbon” land use, is therefore to use land to produce the goods we want – such as food, fuel and fabric – but to offset all greenhouse gas emitted during production (e.g. methane from farm animals and CO2 from soil management) with carbon dioxide removal by plants (e.g. by increasing our woodland).

This sounds simple, but the devil is in the detail. There are competing visions for what ‘net zero’ land use might look like, which largely depend on future consumer demand.

One net zero vision is to change the way we use food – less meat, fewer calories, and less waste –reducing pressure on land, producing less food and using less land to do so. This may particularly resonate after the excess and waste of the festive period - with an estimated 4 million Christmas dinners (270,000 tonnes) thrown away.

A reduced-demand approach potentially allows lower-yielding, more environmentally friendly farming, including agro-forestry, planting trees within farms, and “afforestation” – growing more trees and allowing space for wildlife. An equally important benefit might be encouraging people to eat more healthily - reducing the burden of dietary-related ill-health, freeing up pressure on the NHS.

An alternative “business as usual” approach is increasing farming intensity on our land to meet the ever-growing demand for cheap, abundant food. Our emissions, food waste and obesity crises would grow with this option, and we would continue to create agricultural deserts void of wildlife. To offset increased emissions, we’d need intensively managed plantations of willow coppice or switchgrass, not “natural forests”. We could achieve net zero by intensively farming all available land – for crops, livestock and biomass plantations.

Another option to achieve net zero in the UK would be to import more cheap food for people and farm animals from countries willing to bear the environmental costs. Clearly, this would be a hollow but perhaps politically popular win-win: we give up little to achieve the “climate leadership” at home, ignoring the costs globally.

Today I will speak to farmers and decision-makers at the Oxford Real Farming Conference about how we can work together to make our farming future net zero. To my mind, reducing demand seems the most desirable option: healthier people, living on a healthier planet, whilst preserving the essence of our countryside. The second and third options, however, might be more politically expedient. Unless we, as citizens, make our preferences known, we are likely to get what is easiest to achieve – and that may be not what we like.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.