Stalled Agriculture Emissions Cuts Show Need for Green Brexit

Cows in a field

The UK has failed to make any cuts to emissions from agriculture. Again.

New government statistics released 22 August show UK farming emitted 49.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2015, the exact same amount as a year before and remaining at about the same level since 2008.

Overall, agriculture accounted for about 10 percent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and remains the country’s fifth largest emitting sector.

While the sector only contributed one percent of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, it was responsible for 53 percent of the UK’s methane emissions. Methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and – pound for pound – can trap much more heat in the atmosphere over the course of a couple of decades.

Agricultural emissions come from a variety of sources. The production of animal feed is the main driver, while generating power to keep the industry going also creates a lot of emissions. Livestock such as cows, sheep and pigs also emit a lot of methane.

A recent study suggested converting land for farming has led to the release of 133 billion tons of carbon dioxide globally over the last 12,000 years. That's the equivalent of 13 years of global emissions from all sectors at their current levels, the Washington Post pointed out.  

Since 2008, the UK has failed to cut its agricultural emissions, with reductions stalling at about 17 percent below 1990 levels. There is no specific climate target for the agriculture sector, instead the industry is captured under the UK Climate Change Act's general 80 percent greenhouse gas emissions reduction target, from 1990 levels, by 2050.

Most of the UK’s agricultural policy is currently tied to the EU. The UK’s failure to significantly cut the sector’s emissions for almost a decade highlights the need for a greater environmental focus within agricultural policy after Brexit, campaigners say.

Even Michael Gove, the UK’s “shy green” environment secretary, has identified Brexit as as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform how we care for our land, our rivers and our seas, how we recast our ambition for our country’s environment, and the planet”.

Source: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Agricultural statistics and climate change (8th edition) report

Brexit Impact

It remains unclear whether leaving the EU will have a positive or negative impact on the UK’s agricultural emissions.

UK farmers currently receive lots of subsidy from the EU, and are in exchange bound by lots of European regulations.

The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) creates a lot of incentives for UK farmers that aren’t particularly environmentally friendly.

For instance, the financial incentives can encourage deforestation and land conversion to increase the amount of land for which farmers can claim subsidies. Without this incentive, fewer acres may have been converted to farmland leaving more trees and foliage to absorb greenhouse gases.

Once the UK leaves the EU, the policy will no longer apply. As such, some campaigners have called on the government to reform the UK’s agricultural policy to make it much more environmentally friendly.

But the CAP isn’t entirely bad news for the environment. The policy mechanism contains funding for afforestation and regulations on nitrates. This could be lost when the UK leaves the EU, independent government advisor, the Committee on Climate Change, points out.

Clare Oxborrow, campaigner for Friends of the Earth, told DeSmog UK, “it’s all to play for. Much could be won if new agriculture policy is designed well, but things could get even worse if it is not.”

There is an opportunity for the UK to bring forward a world-leading agriculture policy once we are out of the EU Common Agriculture Policy – this should contain a mandatory commitment to reducing agricultural emissions, with financial support going to farmers who can show they are doing so, alongside providing other public goods like boosting biodiversity and building healthy soils, which will also sequester more carbon.”

She said any new agriculture policy “must be integrated with a food strategy that promotes healthy and sustainable eating patterns – and more plant based diets.”

The UK currently imports about 46 percent of its food. And Brexit could mean it imports even more and cheaper goods from countries with lower environmental standards.

As such, a hard Brexit could mean the UK lowering environmental standards across the board, including in the agriculture sector, Queen’s University Belfast’s Professor John Barry told DeSmog UK.

That could lead to more carbon and chemically intensive farming, as “we’re more likely to see an agricultural sector post-Brexit that is competing with other low standard countries”, Barry said.

But that situation isn’t guaranteed. “If British agriculture wants access to EU markets — as opposed to other bilateral trade agreements with the USA for example — then this will require adherence to EU environmental standards,” he said.

Some analysts suggest the UK should follow New Zealand’s example when reforming its agricultural policy.

The country had to completely redesign its agricultural policy in the 1980s after the UK — one of its main trading partners — joined the European Economic Community and adopted external tariffs. New Zealand decided to remove all of its subsidies for food production and fertiliser use, leading to consistent growth in the sector for the next decade and a half. The policy changes also had environmental benefits, with farmers using less artificial pesticide and increasing afforestation.

But there were environmental downsides to the plan too, think tank Bright Blue points out. Farmers converted grassland to pastures that absorb less carbon dioxide, and increased livestock production — an emissions intensive form of agriculture.

As with anything Brexit-related, the future of the UK’s agricultural policy remains unclear. It will be interesting to see whether the government’s Brexit choices change the direction of the UK’s agricultural emissions.

Correction 24/08/2017: The second line was changed to add the word 'million' to the statistic regarding emissions from agriculture.

Main image credit: Peter O'Connor via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

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