COVID: emissions drop, but not from land and agriculture. Why?

By Matt Williams, Climate and Land Programme Lead @mattadamw

Published:26 March 2021

Covid-19 lockdowns led to carbon dioxide from transport plummeting by 19.5% in 2019-2020 with the UK’s power sector continuing its downward trend thanks to an ever greater share of renewables shaving 11.8% off the previous year’s CO2 emissions tally.

Emissions in agriculture and land use sectors are refusing to fall. Image: Geraint Rowland
Emissions in agriculture and land use sectors are refusing to fall. Image: Geraint Rowland

Emissions from green and pleasant land remain steady

Covid-19 lockdowns led to carbon dioxide from transport plummeting by 19.5% in 2019-2020 with the UK’s power sector continuing its downward trend thanks to an ever greater share of renewables shaving 11.8% off the previous year’s CO2 emissions tally. But new statistics released by the UK Government show that carbon dioxide from the agriculture and land use sectors was largely unaffected.

In one sense this isn’t hugely surprising with agricultural emissions (which cover operations on farms like livestock, machinery, and fertiliser) having increased slightly over the past decade. And keeping food supply chains, often taken for granted by the public, going during the lockdowns took on much greater importance in the public eye.

The land use sector (forests, grasslands, croplands, wetlands etc.) is a small source of emissions, recorded as 1.3% of UK emissions. But land is going to be needed to provide a decent chunk of the ‘net’ in the UK’s net zero target, helping to absorb excess emissions into soils and vegetation. Currently though, the absorption that is occurring, mainly through forests, is being outweighed by emissions from croplands, grasslands, and peatlands caused by soil erosion and by drying out and degradation of peatlands that causes them to release their stored carbon. Instead of helping to hit the UK’s 2050 target by offsetting emissions, land in the UK risks being a thorn in the side of attempts to reach net zero.

Currently our green and pleasant land is not quite as ‘green’ as you might have thought.

2021: the chance to plough a new furrow?

With the UK-hosted COP26 climate summit in November and China holding a major UN biodiversity summit just a month before, international pressure on reducing emissions and restoring nature will be high.

In the UK, farming subsidy schemes have previously failed to create a strong incentive to cut emissions. A voluntary agriculture sector plan to tackle emissions has delivered very modest cuts from some sources (while others have risen), around 0.9 MtCO2e according to Defra.

Many farmers say they don’t understand what to do to cut emissions (while 47% said in 2019 they believed no action was necessary). Nonetheless, the 2020 Farm Practices Survey 66% of farmers reported taking action to reduce greenhouse gases.

Emissions from agriculture will need to fall by 15% by 2032 to be on track for net zero according to the Climate Change Committee and the NFU has set a goal for the sector to be net zero by 2040.

The Government’s plans for a new farming subsidy system could help to point things in the right direction. The Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), which Defra announced details of in March 2021, will be piloted in the coming years before being fully rolled out. This, and other elements of the new farming system, could help farmers to deliver measures on their farms that will be crucial in achieving net zero.

The new system will pay farmers for actions such as incorporating manure onto ploughed land or using cover crops in winter which can reduce soil erosion and reduce the need for artificial fertiliser.

Farmers will also be rewarded for managing the soils and habitats on their land to increase carbon storage, which could include expanding hedgerows or incorporating trees into fields.

Nature and Net Zero

The land use sector will need to absorb more emissions and peatlands will need to be restored to cut what is currently a significant source of carbon (the majority of peatlands are degraded and drying out, releasing their carbon.

The UK Government has set out its ambitions for 30% of land to be protected and managed for nature by 2030, which will help to restore ecosystems that can also store carbon. The Government has committed £640 million to the restoration of peatlands and to increasing tree cover by 30,000 hectares (around 56,000 football pitches) per year from 2025 onwards. UK tree planting has been low for the last decade with the vast majority of planting happening in Scotland, followed by Wales and Northern Ireland – rates will need to more than double to match this target.

New strategies are due to be published in the coming weeks for restoring peatlands and planting more trees in England (Wales has recently published a new action plan for peatlands).

These will all help to increase the helpful role played by natural habitats in getting to net zero. If done sensitively, this will also benefit a range of species and help to achieve biodiversity targets as well.

In England, 80% of emissions from peatlands come from lowland peat soils (such as those in the Fens in the east of England). These peat soils are sometimes highly productive as well, and important for growing fruit and vegetables. The UK Government has established a Lowland Peat Agricultural Taskforce to explore how to tackle emissions from this area.

Cutting emissions and increasing absorption on land will be crucial in achieving net zero emissions. There is no single strategy for cutting emissions from the land use and agriculture sector, but instead a raft of different policies that intersect. How many tons of emissions they will save, by when, remains unclear but they are a crucial element of the UK’s path to net zero. The coming decade will need to look very different to the decade just gone and 2021 could be the turning point.

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