Reaching net zero: the crucial role of agriculture

By William Cracroft-Eley

Our chairman, William Cracroft-Eley, speaks candidly in a blog post looking at the challenge we face to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero…

“Tackling climate change and the effects of climate change is the major global environmental challenge. It calls on us to address our impact on the Earth’s natural resources, and in so doing, reduce not just our contribution to global warming, but also our threat to the natural environment and our fellow species, both animal and plant, with whom we share our planet and an interdependence essential for the preservation and continuity of life as we know it.

To this end, the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion is that we need to restrict global warming to 1.5c above pre-industrial level by 2100, and in order to achieve this we need to have global Net Zero emissions by 2050. The UK has enshrined this 2050 target in law, and now has to deliver a policy framework that can deliver it.

Within any scenario, land use and agriculture are fundamental. Not just because, at present, it is one of the main sources of GHG emissions, and therefore needs to clean up its act, but also because land use and agriculture hold the key to much of the low carbon economy, for which biomass is an essential component, as well as hosting carbon capture, storage and sequestration through the root systems and long life products  from trees and perennial biomass crops as well as peat bogs.

The Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering joint report, “Greenhouse Gas Removal,” written in 2018, and the more recent Committee on Climate Change report, “Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK”, (January 2020) set out  pathways and technologies required for UK to achieve “Net Zero” emissions in 2050. In both reports, there is a heavy dependence on biomass – for energy, for building, for Biochar … etc.

The CCC report recognises the need for 30,000ha per annum of afforestation and 23,000ha per annum of perennial energy crops to be planted between 2020 and 2050. If this seems drastic, lets put it into context; these figures equate to c. 1.6mha of new forestry and perennial energy crops by 2050, equivalent to a land use change of c. 8.5% of the total 19mha of the UK under agriculture in 2018. Current health guidelines call for 20% reduction in red meat consumption. Allowing for population increase to 2050, this will mean a drop in livestock numbers of circa 10% over that time period. This is a slower rate of decline than the 10% per decade seen over the last 20 years. The land freed up from this change could easily accommodate this LUC. We are not going to see drastic landscape impact or compulsory Veganism as a result!

While there is no denying that afforestation and trees deliver excellent carbon sequestration, within the Net Zero 2050 context any new planting fail to deliver the low carbon goods within the 2020-2050 timeframe, and this is where the fast growing, very high yielding PEC’s such as Miscanthus fill the production gap. Miscanthus will deliver a first biomass harvest after just two years, and then annually thereafter. Without the low carbon goods – electricity, bioethanol bio-plastics, bio building products, bio-concrete, boards, fibres and a host of others – we will not make the Net Zero 2050 target.

Requiring virtually no inputs, and no annual establishment cultivation’s, putting a proportion of your farm into Miscanthus will significantly reduce your overall GHG emissions, horsepower, diesel and fertiliser usage per ha.

At the same time as sequestering below ground carbon, the perennial root activity is growing organic matter, life and natural fertility back in to soils which are generally desertified following many decades of intensive production. Biodiversity in Miscanthus, above and below ground, is much richer then the intensive arable or grass crops that it is likely to displace, and this needs to be recognised also.

It is a crop that happily withstands winter flooding, while its root systems improve soil water holding capacity and hold back water flow, meaning it is an excellent strategic option for protecting vulnerable communities.”