HM Insights

Biggest change since the tractor? How does farming fit into Scotland's climate change ambition?

By Graeme Nisbet and Rob McConnell

The UN Paris Agreement, of which the UK is a signatory, states that countries pursue efforts to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5°C. Therefore, the Scottish Government has pledged to reduce Scotland's greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2045, if not sooner, as per the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009 (as amended).

Furthermore, the Scottish Government aims to meet interim targets for reductions of at least 56% by 2020, 75% by 2030 and 90% by 2040. The issue of getting to net-zero is now of paramount importance to the Scottish Government and this will affect all sectors of the economy, especially farming.

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Focus on Scotland in 2021

The attention of the world will be focused on Scotland when the postponed United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26, is hosted in Glasgow in November 2021. There will be focus and scrutiny like never before on sectors of Scotland's economy that are viewed to be roadblocks to the overall ambition of getting to net-zero.

The farming sector, rightly or wrongly, is included in this category seeing as it accounts for nearly a quarter of Scotland's annual emissions. It is now clear that without the engagement of the farming community, Scotland will not meet the targets detailed above. The question is now whether the farming sector has a plan to become a champion of reform and climate-aware practices?

To aid in this endeavour, the independent inquiry 'Farming for 1.5°C' has released a report outlining how the farming sector can aid in this effort. 'Farming for 1.5°C' was jointly sponsored by NFU Scotland and Nourish Scotland, and is innovative in its make-up of farmers, scientists, activists and environmental NGOs. It sought to obtain data and ideas from across the farming sector. The report details 15 recommendations, of which some are discussed below.

The need for a platform that allows sharing of expertise, technical support and political influence

The report recommends the creation of a Transformation Steering Group that would include high-level government and stakeholder representation. It would be tasked with long-term strategy and would allow for confirmation that any short-term actions are in-line with long term objectives. It could also help co-ordinate the sharing of expertise and information between farmers and stakeholders. The report is very clear on the need for long-term partnership between the farming sector and the Scottish Government.

The need for political, financial and technical clarity

Whilst the report is clear on the need for partnership between the farming sector and the Scottish Government, it argues that more is still needed. The Scottish Government needs to be clear with the sector in terms of targets as well as what role they see farming taking in the larger climate picture. For example, take the issue of carbon sequestration. This essentially is the process of storing carbon in natural structures such as soil, plants and bodies of water – which the farming sector is uniquely set up to provide.

The Scottish Government needs to confirm whether they wish the sector to use their sequestration potential to offset the sector's own emissions or if they wish the sector to use it to offset other heavy polluting sectors like aviation. This clarity is crucial as it will inform the extent of efforts required from the farming sector to meet their targets. Should the Scottish Government want the sector to use their natural resources to offset other sectors of the economy, then financial support must be provided.

Separate treatment of greenhouse gases

The report suggests that the Scottish Government create an 'emissions calculator' that breaks down targets for each of the component gases (methane, nitrous oxide and CO2) that are often lumped together as 'greenhouse gases'. This would help further inform efforts required to reduce gases that are especially high in the farming sector, such as methane.

  • Methane – the report states that methane must be reduced from livestock (this includes deer). The report links this to animal health and holds that creating high-health flocks and herds can produce benefits for producers and consumers alike. Furthermore, farmers need to take advantage of technology that can aid with livestock waste management.
  • Nitrous oxide – the report highlights the link between ammonia, which is apparent in slurry processes, and nitrous oxide which is particularly harmful to the atmosphere. Farming accounts for 69% of all nitrous oxide emitted in Scotland and hence the need for immediate action in terms of slurry and nitrogen-based inorganic fertilisers.
  • CO2 – the report links high CO2 production to the use of heavy machinery and transport. The electrification of farm vehicles and machines would make a large dent in CO2 production. The report also looks to a future where farms are largely powered by renewable energy, whether the turbines or hydro schemes are on-farm or not.

The move to agroforestry, biodiversity and agritourism

By increasing efforts to build biodiversity and move, where possible, to an agroforestry model will have a huge impact on reducing methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia emissions. Agroforestry, when used correctly, can actually increase production of crops and livestock health via healthier pasture and soil. It should also be noted that agroforestry, by way of there being an increase of trees, means a reduction in ploughing which improves soil health. An increase in trees, which can be used for commercial timber, also creates a new revenue stream for farmers. For example, Scotland could look to mirror Scandinavia's birch market, which relies on agroforestry as a source.

As mentioned above, there is huge sequestration potential in biodiversity via woodland, peat moorland, grassland and pasture. By taking a 'whole-farm approach', the report seeks to highlight the opportunities that diversifying farm operations will bring. By taking advantage of on-farm opportunities, farmers can increase the biodiversity of their land as well as engaging with rural communities to further both climate action and rural economic growth.

By providing new financial support measures, the Scottish Government could drive the farming sector making further use of renewable energy, organic farming techniques and creation of new sequestration areas. For example, a recent report stated that only 1.6% of Scotland's farming land is organic – there is currently no nationwide policy in place to bring this up to EU levels. However, initial investment costs for farmers to diversify are high, hence the need for a government financial package.

Conclusion and next steps

The report has detailed the huge challenges and opportunities facing the farming sector when it comes to climate change action. It is evident that the farming sector is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland and therefore will be a focus for the Scottish Government moving forward in this area. This will likely mean further regulations bringing into effect what has been discussed above.

Whilst this is a difficult time for the farming sector, like much of the economy, there is a clear trend towards a Green Recovery as we come out of the pandemic and into a new relationship with the EU. By taking steps now to reduce emissions and increase biodiversity, farms can get ready to thrive in the new climate-conscious environment in Scotland. This issue is here to stay and will become a factor in most government decisions moving forward – the better prepared you are, the better your business and community will thrive.

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