Fenland fields leaking carbon emissions as drought threatens soil

As the Environment Agency confirms ongoing drought in East Anglia, dry peatlands in Fenlands and Cambridgeshire are leaking 112 times as much carbon as nearby fields that are not on peat soils.

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By George Smeeton


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New analysis of government data by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) has found that soils used to grow crops including vegetables in East Anglia are releasing 112 times as much carbon as adjacent farmland.

Fields of peat soils used to grow crops in Fenland and Cambridgeshire local authorities have been releasing on average 1344 CO2 tonnes per km2 per year. The statistics suggest that they are losing carbon quickly meaning they are becoming degraded.

Dry peat soils release their carbon to the atmosphere and are exposed to wind and rain, blowing and washing them away [1]. This degradation means they are not as good at storing scarce water when it falls on them. The Fens are one of the driest parts of the UK, receiving a similar amount of rainfall to some parts of the Middle East. Some parts of the Fens may start to run out of water in as little as five years [2]. East Anglia remains in drought following last year’s unprecedented heatwave and lower than average rainfalls.

The food chain in the Fens supports 80,000 jobs, generates £3 billion per year and produces a third of England’s vegetables. [3]

Matt Williams, land use analyst at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, said: “The bedrock of our food security is our soil. Supporting farmers to preserve their soils, plant trees and hedgerows to reduce erosion from wind and extreme rainfall will ultimately protect our yields. Rewarding farmers for ploughing less often or for growing crops that absorb nutrients from the atmosphere and return them to the soil are simple steps in the right direction. To ensure UK food security in the face of climate change we may need to look at other parts of the country to grow vegetables. These are complex issues and more research is needed to understand the dynamics and the solutions.”

The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan for England has set a target for all peat soils to be sustainably managed by 2030. As announced in 2018, the Government’s ELM scheme would incentivise farmers to take measures to improve soil health [4]. The Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan stated that all soils would be sustainably managed by 2030 [5]. The Government’s England Peat Action Plan [6] established a Lowland Agricultural Peat Task Force to examine the challenges facing these soils.

Farmers are facing additional costs for fertilisers which have risen because of a surge in the price of gas which is used to manufacture these chemicals, leading some farmers in the UK choosing not to plant crops [7].

Notes to editors:

1. https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Cranfield-University-for-the-ASC.pdf

2. https://www.clr.conservation.cam.ac.uk/projects

3. https://www.nfuonline.com/archive?treeid=117727#:~:text=The%20Fens%20is%20famous%20for,Mustard%20are%20in%20the%20Fens

4. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/environmental-land-management-schemes-overview

5. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/693158/25-year-environment-plan.pdf

6. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1010786/england-peat-action-plan.pdf

7. https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/uk-farmers-cant-afford-plant-23811589

  • ECIU analysis of Government data: National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory data on emissions from land use, 2019 https://naei.beis.gov.uk/reports/reports?report_id=1025
  • https://www.cam.ac.uk/news/cambridge-researchers-tackle-threats-to-the-uks-vegetable-garden
  • Fenland Local Authority and East Cambridgeshire Local Authority each released over 700,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from cropland in 2019 (the most recent year of data available). For comparison in other areas emissions in 2019 from croplands were: in Ashford Local Authority in Kent 9000 tonnes, in Central Bedfordshire Local Authority 18,000 tonnes, and in East Northamptonshire Local Authority 13,000 tonnes. Other Local Authorities such as Huntingdonshire and North Lincolnshire did have fairly high emissions from croplands – 405,000 tonnes and 132,000 tonnes respectively. This is probably due to the presence of some peat soils. But these emissions were not as high as in East Cambridgeshire and Fenland, and were offset by absorption of carbon by forests and grassland, giving a much lower average release of carbon dioxide per km2 across the Local Authority.
  • Deliberate draining and increasing drought due to climate change [3], are causing these soils to dry out even further, leading to them releasing such large quantities of carbon dioxide. https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Cranfield-University-for-the-ASC.pdf

For more information:

George Smeeton, Head of Communications, ECIU, Tel: 07894 571 153, email: george.smeeton@eciu.net