NFU says growing fuel for power stations and capturing CO2 can slash emissions
Farming can become climate neutral by 2040 without cutting beef production or converting substantial areas of farmland into forest, according to a plan published by the National Farmers’ Union, The Guardian reports.
Instead, the NFU says three-quarters of the UK’s agricultural emissions can be offset by growing fuel for power stations and then capturing and burying the carbon dioxide, which could lead to energy plants becoming the nation’s biggest crop after wheat. Increasing the carbon stored in soils and using technology to reduce the emissions caused by cattle and fertiliser use are also needed, the NFU says.
Agriculture causes about 10% of the UK’s climate-heating emissions; 90% is methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from fields. The UK is committed to ending net emissions by 2050, but sectors such as farming and aviation are the biggest challenges.
Minette Batters, the president of the NFU, said making the sector climate neutral would be tough but an ambitious plan was necessary or society would not forgive farmers. She said farmers understood better than most that climate change was the biggest challenge of our time.
“We are seeing far more extreme weather events and we are impacted more than anyone else because our offices are outside,” she said. “Last year was a frightening year on our farm. Our spring barley died in front of us” because of a lack of water.Advertisement
A series of recent scientific studieshave concluded that consumers in rich nations need to drastically cut red meat consumption in order to tackle the climate crisis and destruction of wildlife. But the NFU argues that UK beef production does not rely on high-intensity farming or turning forests into pasture, and is only 40% as emission-intensive as the global beef production average.
“We don’t plan to make any cuts,” Batters said. “We think we can do it without changing levels of production.” People are increasingly choosing to eat less meat and Batters said: “Everybody’s diet is up to individuals to choose, but there are other parts of the world that are hungry for high-quality meat.”
The NFU plan envisages half of farming’s emissions being offset by growing willow, miscanthus grass and other energy crops to use in bioenergy with carbon capture and storage power plants. The technology is only at the pilot stage but the scale required by the NFU plan is consistent with projections for 2050 from the Committee on Climate Change, the government’s official advisers. The NFU plans also call for a doubling of wind, solar and biomethane energy on farms.
Storing more carbon in soils, peatlands, woodlands and hedgerows offsets another fifth of agricultural emissions. Only 1.5% of the total comes from new tree planting – less than the CCC has recommended – but the NFU sees its figure as the maximum realistically possible.
A quarter of farming’s emissions can be cut by raising animals and growing crops more efficiently, according to the NFU. Its plans highlight feed additives to cut methane in animals, gene editing to improve crops and livestock, and controlled-release fertilisers.
“It is very welcome that the NFU is setting ambitious targets,” said Sue Pritchard, the director of the RSA’s food, farming and countryside commission, which concluded in July that farming must be radically transformed within 10 years to end environmental destruction. “Many farmers are already doing what they can – the growth of the pasture fed livestock movement is a case in point.”
The Friends of the Earth campaigner Guy Shrubsole said: “Eating less but better meat is a crucial part of the fight against climate breakdown, yet astonishingly there is no mention of this in the NFU’s report. Doing so would free up much more land for trees and agroforestry, which would absorb huge quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.
“It seems the NFU is still not prepared to contemplate significant land use change in Britain, despite the CCC recommending this as being vital,” he said, noting that some progressive farmers are starting to pioneer a new approach to managing the land.
Some environmental groups have called for a quarter of the UK to be returned to nature through rewilding to tackle the climate crisis and the loss of wildlife. Batters said: “All farms have wild areas on them. It shouldn’t be a binary debate of rewilding versus production.”
Farmers are extremely worried about a possible no-deal Brexit and the UK being flooded with cheap, lower-standard food, and Batters said achieving climate neutrality would be extremely hard in that scenario.
The NFU report does not assess whether payments to farms – currently £3bn a year under the EU subsidy regime – would need to rise or fall in order to make agriculture climate neutral. Batters said it was vital for the government to introduce the right policies so farmers were given incentives to deal with emissions, and have long-term funding in place.