The Climate Change Committee (CCC) published their most recent report on 29 June 2022, providing the latest assessment of UK greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and progress in emissions reductions. The report finds that UK emissions are now almost half (47%) their 1990 levels, demonstrating that good progress has been made (in some sectors). However, despite this initially promising statistic, the UK remains a long way from meeting our climate targets (Net Zero by 2050) and action in certain sectors (e.g., agriculture and land use) has been too slow.

Current assessment of emissions

UK GHG emissions were 447 MtCO2e in 2021, which includes the UK’s share of international aviation and shipping emissions.

Emissions from UK agriculture and land use totaled 50 MtCO2e in 2020 (46 MtCO2e from agriculture and 4 MtCO2e from land use), representing 12% of all UK GHG emissions. While a slight reduction in emissions was seen between 2019 and 2020, it follows a decade where no emissions reductions were achieved by the sector, a stark reality that the sector is not currently on the right path to achieve Net Zero by 2050.

Progress in the agriculture and land use sector

The report stressed that there has been low uptake of low-carbon farming (including regenerative practices) and a shortage of improved productivity measures to decarbonise the agriculture sector. For example, arable productivity has stalled for the last 20 years, with wheat yields sitting at around 9.7 tonnes per hectare. The CCC state that wheat yields need to sustainably increase to 11 tonnes per hectare by 2050 to meet demand.

The emissions intensity (the CCC measure of livestock productivity) of beef, pork and dairy has slowly declined since 1990, but there has been little net change in sheep. It is important to note that, despite some improvements in productivity, ruminants (beef cattle, dairy cattle, and sheep) represented 93% of direct agricultural emissions in 2020, largely associated with methane emissions.

Woodland creation and peatland restoration are also lagging behind government targets. The table below summaries the CCC’s assessment of progress of the agriculture and land use sector against key indicators.

Table 1. Summary of the progress of the agriculture and land use sector against key indicators. Adapted from Table 1 in the CCC 2022 Progress Report.

Indicator Status
Agricultural methane (CH4) emissions Too early to say
Agricultural nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions Too early to say
New woodland Significantly off track
Woodland management Significantly off track
Peat restoration Significantly off track
Energy crops Slightly off track
Farmer action Too early to say
Crop yields Slightly off track
Livestock numbers Too early to say
Meat consumption On track

How does current policy stand up?

The report finds that for the agriculture and land use sector, low-carbon options remain in their infancy and policy has not yet begun to guide the promised private sector action. In fact, the agriculture and land use sector were found to have the weakest policies in the CCC’s assessment, despite being vital to delivering Net Zero and the Government’s other goals on food security and biodiversity. In addition, it is recognised that progress in reducing farming emissions has been glacial and the Government’s recent Food Strategy did little to address these issues.

The CCC point out that the UK government Net Zero strategy is relying on innovation within the agriculture industry, with an assumption that farmers will take up low-carbon farming practices and productivity improvements voluntarily. This is a risky strategy as these approaches are not yet mainstream and may be dependent on future innovation.

Emphasis sits with the incoming Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) scheme, which may support in bridging this gap to some extent, via incentives to farmers to adopt low-carbon farming practices, by providing subsidy payments to farmers under the premise of ‘public money for public goods’.

Furthermore, whilst the Government has not set out any ambition for UK consumption of meat and dairy to be reduced, the CCC recognise that cutting back can contribute to healthier diets, reduce direct emissions from food production in the agriculture sector, and also free up land that can be used for carbon sequestration.

A shift is needed towards action and implementation

The report makes over 300 recommendations for filling out policies over the next year, reflecting the scale of the task at hand as the Government moves from strategy to implementation.

Recommendations by the authors include:

  • A focus on stronger delivery mechanisms for land use change (e.g., increasing peat restoration to 67,000 hectares by 2025 and 50,000 hectares by 2050, and increasing woodland land area from 13% to 18% by 2050).
  • Creating policy that supports UK citizens in a transition from high carbon diets to a food system that is ‘sustainable, affordable and nature positive’ (there has been a steady shift in dietary patterns between 2009-2019, with a rise from 7% to 13% of people opting for plant-based alternatives to meat).
  • A need for the government to focus on developing a land use strategy (promised for 2023) that details how agricultural land can realistically deliver the multiple expected functions expected of it, without resulting in diminishing productivity.
  • Further progress to ensure emissions reductions must be led by Government policies with clear direction, credible delivery mechanisms and suitable incentives to shape private sector action. However, it is critical that reducing emissions does not result in depressed productivity, increasing the need to import food and commodities, which risk increasing carbon leakage and exporting emissions overseas.

Advice and support

The UK Government will require action from all organisations in all sectors 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.

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.

Resources

The full report can be found here: https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/Progress-in-reducing-emissions-2022-Report-to-Parliament.pdf