Committee on Climate Change’s net zero land report: 10 things you need to know

The UK must act now to reduce emissions from agriculture, land use and peatlands if it is to reach net zero by 2050, according to the government’s climate change advisers. Here are 10 things you need to know about the advisers’ new report, published today.

1 Land emissions must be slashed three-fold to reach net zero

In June last year, parliament approved an amendment to the Climate Change Act 2008, which aims to put the UK on course to deliver a near 100% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century.

To achieve this, emissions from agriculture, land use and peatlands must be drastically cut by a factor of three, according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

In 2017, these emission sources stood at 58 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2e) but this can be reduced by 64% to 21 MtCO2e by 2050, says the CCC.

2 The benefits outweigh the costs

The CCC anticipates that realising such reductions in emissions will deliver a net lifetime benefit of £80 billion to the UK.

But this will cost an estimated £1.4bn per year, which will need to be covered by the private and public sectors. In 2018, UK farmers and land managers received around £3.3bn from the EU’s common agricultural payment (CAP), of which around 80% was used for direct payments.

3 One fifth of agricultural land must become carbon sinks

One-fifth of agricultural land by 2050 must be taken out of production and used to reduce emissions and sequester carbon, according to the CCC’s report. This includes adopting measures such as growing bioenergy crops and dramatically increasing tree planting and peatland restoration.

4 More bioenergy crops are needed

The CCC believes 23,000 hectares of bioenergy crops need to be planted each year (700,000 hectares by 2050) to deliver 2 MtCO2e emissions savings and an extra 11MtCO2e from the harvested biomass when carbon capture and storage is used.

In the UK, there are currently around 132,000 hectares of agricultural land used for bioenergy crops – chiefly wheat (66,000 hectares) and maize (52,000ha), although the CCC assumes that much more miscanthus grass (7,000 hectares) could be planted on existing cropland.

5 The UK must reduce meat consumption by one fifth

The report states that the UK's population must reduce consumption, by at least 20% per person, of the most carbon-intensive foods (beef, lamb and dairy) and reduce food waste by 20% to save 7 MtCO2e of on-farm emissions by 2050.

This would also drive sufficient release of land to support the necessary changes in tree planting and bioenergy crops, said the CCC.

Factoring in population growth, the CCC equates the resulting reduced demand to lead to a 10% reduction in cattle and sheep numbers by 2050 compared with 2017 levels.

6 Major polluters must pay for large-scale tree planting

It is essential to increase UK forestry cover from 13% to at least 17% by 2050, says the CCC. This means planting around 30,000 hectares or more of broadleaf and conifer woodland each year – something the Conservatives pledged during their general election campaign.

Together with improved woodland management, this would deliver annual emissions savings of 14MtCO2e from forests plus an additional 14MtCO2e from harvested materials by 2050. Planting trees on agricultural land, while maintaining their primary use, could deliver a further 6MtCO2e savings by 2050, states the report.

To achieve this, tree-planting schemes should be allowed to take part in auctioned contract schemes, similar to those offered for renewable electricity – or be pooled into a carbon trading scheme – funded through a levy on greenhouse gas emitting industries, said the CCC.

7 Peatlands must be restored and burning banned

Restoring at least half of upland peatlands and a quarter of lowland peatlands would reduce their emissions by 5MtCO2e by 2050 and makes economic sense, says the CCC.

Taking account of carbon sequestration alone, the CCC’s figures show that the net present value of restoring upland peat is £10,300 per hectare and for lowland peat £9,800 per hectare. But the cost of upland peatland restoration averages only around £4,400 per hectare and £5,600 per hectare for lowland peat.

To protect and restore peat, the government’s advisers have advocated a ban on damaging practices such as rotational burning and a ban on peat extraction, which must be put in place by 2023, it said.

The CCC also believes that water companies should be obliged to restore peatland on land they own and that owners of peatland within a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) must also be charged with the responsibility.

8 Low-carbon farming practices must be put in place

Low carbon farming practices such as precision farming are also needed, the CCC said. This includes the use of controlled release fertilisers, improving livestock health and reducing slurry acidification, which can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) by 10 MtCO2e by 2050, states the report.

While the government’s new Agriculture Bill has placed an added emphasis on rewards for public benefits and the inclusion of financial support for soil health, it is not yet clear how this will be enforced.

9 Food waste must be reduced

To address the 13.6m tonnes of food wasted each year in the UK, the government should implement steps to reduce food waste from the farm to the householder, including mandatory separate food waste collection, the report states.

10 The financial rewards could be enormous

If the CCC’s recommendations are implemented in full, the total benefits to society would increase fourfold with £4bn per year realised. This compares with a £1bn per year business-as-usual scenario of limited tree planting, peatland restoration and uptake of low-carbon farming practices, said the CCC.

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