Is the NFU serious about net zero climate emissions?

| 21st October 2019
Three dairy cows in a field

Three dairy cows in a field

Photo by Matthias Zomer from Pexels
The NFU’s goal for farming to reach net zero emissions should be welcomed - but their plan to achieve this is worrying and ignores the elephant in the room.

Despite being the leading cause of agricultural emissions, there is absolutely no mention of reducing or limiting the role of animal agriculture.

Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes have successfully managed to keep the climate crisis high up the political agenda.

With this sustained attention, and a wider climate movement pressuring the government and major institutions, serious action to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be within reach.

Discussions about reducing GHG emissions have largely focussed on the energy and transport sectors, which are still responsible for the highest share of total emissions.

Animal agriculture

But with substantial progress being made in clean energy production and a clear way forward for electrification of transport, attention is increasingly turning to food and agriculture.

According to the Committee on Climate Change 2019 progress report, agriculture contributes 10 percent of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions and, crucially, has made no emissions reductions for more than a decade.

More than half of these emissions are directly attributable to farmed animals, either in the form of methane from the digestive processes of ruminant animals (cows and sheep) or in the form of nitrous oxide resulting from animal waste.

But this is only part of the story. Grazing land occupies nearly one third of the UK landmass.

The rearing of animals at this scale limits the potential for reforestation and largescale habitat restoration which could help curb the global temperature rise by capturing carbon dioxide from the air.

Worse still, animal farming uses up a huge amount of arable land through its demand for feed crops and is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon.

NFU response

Despite this stark reality, the sector has shown no willingness to reduce the numbers of animals in the system. So many were surprised when Minnette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, announced at its conference in January that the sector would aim for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.

The target appears ambitious and was welcomed by many UK environmental bodies. So how do the NFU plan to achieve this? In September we got the answer. Unfortunately, it isn’t the one many were hoping for.

The NFU released its Achieving Net Zero: Farming’s 2040 Goal, a short report which describes where these emissions reductions would come from. The report lays out three pillars:

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

So far so good. But despite being the leading cause of agricultural emissions, there is absolutely no mention of reducing or limiting the role of animal agriculture. 

Under the first pillar the NFU lists a series of technical measures such as gene editing, feed additives, reducing soil compaction and efficiency measures. But tweaking production can only go so far and, even in the NFU’s plan, these measures get them less than a quarter of the way towards their net zero emissions target.

The second pillar talks about better soil and land management, restoring wetland, improving hedgerows and tree planting. This should be welcomed as any additional habitat restoration is a desperately needed lifeline for UK wildlife.

But the report side-lines tree planting and seeks only to sequester 0.7 million tonnes of C02 per year through woodland cover, less than 1.5 percent of their planned emissions reductions.

To put this into perspective, if all grazed pasture land in the UK was reforested it would sequester around 1,900 million tonnes of C02. Again, the decision to side-line woodland planting is intended to mask the uncomfortable truth: that large-scale carbon capture through reforestation means reclaiming land that is currently devoted to grazing animals.

Alternative solutions

Instead, NFU’s plan achieves most of its net zero target through its third pillar, which relies heavily on increasing biofuel production. This is worrying for two main reasons. Firstly, the growing of energy crops for biofuel directly competes with crops for human consumption, taking land that is perfectly suitable for growing food to meet the nutritional needs of the UK.

Secondly, the emissions produced when biofuels are used need to be captured and stored. This form of technology, known as bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS), remains underdeveloped and costly.

Rob Baily, director of energy, environment and resources at Chatham House described BECCS as a speculative technology which offers “little promise due to a variety of economic and technical hurdles”.

A recent report by the Green Alliance thinktank offers a much more realistic alternative by prioritising habitat restoration. It also mirrors the latest Committee on Climate Change report by recognising the potential for reductions in animal agriculture and the potential to reduce emissions by changing UK diets.

But we should be even more ambitious than this, supporting a transition to plant-based agriculture in the UK and a commitment to reforest and restore large areas of the uplands. The Vegan Society’s Grow Green campaign is pushing for changes in law to support British farmers and land managers to make this transition.

This approach can meet the nutritional needs of the UK population, keep us within ecological limits and help us meet our obligations on climate change.

This Author

Tim Thorpe is a campaigns and policy officer at The Vegan Society. He has a background in environmental science and conservation and is passionate about farming and environmental issues. Interested in veganism and the environment? Why not take the seven-day planet-saving vegan pledge at www.vegansociety.com/plateup.

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