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 emissions by the middle of the century.
But the UK government cannot deliver these reductions without major changes in land use, according to a new report published today by the government's climate change advisers.
In the UK, emissions from agriculture, land use and peatlands currently account for around 58 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2e), but this can be reduced by 64% to 21MtCO2e by 2050, says the CCC.
To achieve this, the CCC has set out a range of proposals to change the way agricultural land in the UK is used, including paying landowners and farmers to plant trees funded by the biggest polluters. The CCC believes tree planting schemes could be auctioned via contracts similar to those offered for renewable electricity – or be pooled into a carbon trading scheme – funded through a levy on greenhouse gas emitting industries.
This would allow forest cover to expand 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 by 2024 – something the Conservatives pledged during their general election victory.
Peatland restoration is another important land use change envisioned by the CCC. The committee believes that at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat should be restored, which would reduce emissions by 5MtCO2e by 2050.
To protect and restore peat, the government’s advisers advocate a ban on damaging practices such as rotational burning, employed chiefly on driven-grouse moors, and a ban on peat extraction by 2023.
Water companies should also be obliged to restore peatland on land they own and owners of peatland within a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) must also be charged with the responsibility, states the report.
Vicki Hird, sustainable farming coordinator for Sustain, cautiously welcomed the committee’s findings. She agreed with the CCC that a comprehensive land use strategy was needed, but warned of major consequences if climate action was the only consideration taken into account.
“The emphasis on freeing up some land for forestry and peatland restoration makes sense, given the potential carbon storage and adaptation potential. However, carbon is not the only crisis facing us. The emphasis on more monoculture energy crops to feed power plants is dangerous - a blinkered approach could damage biodiversity and ecosystems…”
Sandra Bell, campaigner at Friends of the Earth, also welcomed the CCC’s publication but warned that their measures “just don't go far enough”.?
“The?recommendations to support agroforestry and woodland creation are encouraging, but the target must be raised to?double the UK's tree cover,” she said.
Beccy Speight, the RSPB’s chief executive was less than impressed. While the CCC’s report had arrived at a critical time its recommendations were “too slow” and “taking us in the wrong direction”.
She said: “Protecting and restoring our precious natural places could play a much greater role in locking up carbon whilst benefiting people and wildlife. This is an opportunity missed.”
To read the CCC's report in full click here