The Climate Change Committee (CCC) submitted its Sixth Carbon Budget advice to the UK government on 9 December 2020. A carbon budget is a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted in the UK over a five-year period. Budgets must be set at least 12 years in advance to allow policy-makers, businesses and individuals enough time to prepare.

The CCC advises on the appropriate level of each carbon budget, with the sixth budget setting out how the UK can achieve GHG emissions reductions in the mid-term, running from 2033 to 2037. The new advice provides a blueprint for a fully decarbonised UK, concentrating on the pathway required to achieve Net Zero emissions by 2050, which was incorporated into UK law in June 2019.

The CCC pinpoints the 2020s as the most critical decade for driving action on climate change and highlights that the investment required can also help the UK’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, with an expected 2% increase to GDP by 2035. The budget’s plan would see UK emissions reduced by 78% by 2035, based on a 1990 baseline.

To achieve these ambitious commitments, changes will need to be made across all sectors of the economy, driven by forward-thinking action and appropriate policy measures

Emissions in the agriculture and land-use sector

The agriculture and land-use sector will be a key area of focus in order to achieve the emissions reductions required. Following a decline in UK agricultural emissions between 1990 and 2008, emissions have remained relatively stable over the last decade with little progress made in further emissions reductions.

Agricultural emissions are mainly associated with livestock production and soil management and currently account for 10% of the UK’s total GHG emissions, compared to 7% in 1990. This increase reflects both the difficulty in achieving carbon reductions in agriculture and the faster pace of decarbonisation elsewhere in the economy, which has caused the relative proportion of agricultural sector emissions vs total UK GHG emissions to increase.

Key sources of emissions in 2018 included: methane (CH4) from livestock, which accounted for 63% of emissions; nitrous oxide (N2O), mainly from soils, which accounted for 26% of emissions; and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the use of fossil fuels, which accounted for 11% of emissions.

As well as the Government’s target to hit Net Zero by 2050, the National Farmers Union (NFU) has set the ambitious goal of reaching Net Zero GHG emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040.

What changes can be made?

The CCC state that changes within the agricultural sector must come from a variety of sources including:

  • Behavioural change within wider society;
  • Productivity improvement;
  • Significant land-use change for planting more biomass and restoring degraded peat;
  • Sustainable management of existing broadleaf woodlands and cropland peat;
  • The take-up of technological options to reduce non-CO2 emissions from soils, livestock and waste; and
  • Switching away from fossil fuel use in agricultural machinery to low-carbon alternatives.

The CCC acknowledge that it is not currently possible to reduce agricultural non-CO₂ emissions to zero due to the biological and chemical processes inherent in crop and livestock production. Therefore, carbon sequestration and storage will also be a core mechanism for balancing carbon emissions. The CCC recommend that emission reduction occur through the uptake of farming practices and technological options that improve nitrogen use efficiency, livestock diets and breeding, and the management of wastes and manures.

Other land use changes proposed include:

  • Farmers shifting 260,000 ha of agricultural land to bioenergy production by 2035;
  • Increasing woodland, which currently covers 13% of the UK, to cover 15% by 2035 and 18% by 2050; and
  • The restoration of 60% of UK peatland by 2035.

If the CCC’s recommendations are followed, it is forecast that net emissions for agriculture and land use could be reduced from current levels of 55 MtCO2e, to 40 MtCO2e by 2035, and 16 MtCO2e by 2050.

For more information on the CCC carbon budget, please click here.

For more information on the ‘Agriculture and land use, land use change and forestry’ sector carbon budget, please click here.

Advice and Support

The UK Government will require action from all organisations in all sectors in order to collectively reach the Net Zero target. The agriculture and land-use sector will be one of the most important in this quest due to the opportunity for farmers and landowners to reduce direct emissions, to sequester carbon, and to protect carbon already stored on the land in soils and plants.

ADAS will continue to monitor future developments on the UK’s climate commitments and transition to a low carbon economy, providing updates and insights where relevant.

If you would like to find out more about the climate change-related services that ADAS can provide to help your organisation take action (e.g. carbon footprinting, GHG assessments, adapting to climate threats, building resilience, etc.), please contact charles.ffoulkes@adas.co.uk.