The Scottish Government published their Climate Change Plan yesterday; it outlines a collaborative approach for reaching our global commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is a disturbing complacency when it comes to agriculture. By 2032, agriculture will account for 29% of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it the single highest emitting sector above energy and transport which have much more ambitious policy proposals.
The final Plan has ignored advice from the Climate Change Committee that moving beyond voluntary measures is important if the agricultural sector is to play its part in reducing emissions. While the introduction states “our ambition is for Scotland to be among the lowest carbon and most efficient food producers in the world” that ambition is nowhere matched in the plan. The commitment to develop better metrics and to explore payments for carbon is welcome, but the Plan is stuck at the stage of exploring options, when it needs to be stating clear actions. Where budget for policy implementation is identified it seems destined to do more of the same, with little evidence about what has worked (or not) to date.
The plan takes credit for the fall in emissions from agriculture since 1990 (mostly due to reductions in livestock numbers) but fails to note that in the last decade since the Climate Change Act was passed, emissions have fallen much more slowly. It is not clear that any government policy has driven any reduction to date.
For example, while as the plan states, nitrogen fertilizer use has declined since 1990, it has in fact increased since 2008 – and the nitrogen surplus (ie the nitrogen not taken up by the crop) which results in high nitrous oxide emissions as well as pollution has also increased.
The plan includes no timed target for monitoring nitrogen use; it expresses a wish that farmers test their soil but keeps it voluntary, it says nothing about organic farming and it does not address the fact that no agroforestry schemes have been approved to date.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions makes farms more profitable as well as greener – and is one of the key public goods we should expect from the public money which supports agriculture. This is a missed opportunity for the Scottish Government to ensure our agricultural sector is fit for the future. Currently, farmers’ incomes have decreased for the past five years, whilst we have issues with air and water pollution, soil degradation, biodiversity loss as well significant greenhouse gas emissions all associated with the agricultural sector.
Other countries have already taken bold action on agriculture and climate change, there are plenty of ideas out there which would not only reduce our emissions but would also create a safer, greener environment and support profitable farming and thriving rural economies. How about a target for the amount of land managed organically and more organic food in public kitchens? How about a nitrogen budget so we move towards efficient use of resources and minimise pollution? How about meaningful advice and funding for a transition to agroecology and agroforestry?
What’s most needed is a sense of urgency and of ambition matched by action. Many farmers are doing good work already – but shifting normal requires political will and a refocusing of budget, teaching and advice to drive a low-carbon future for farming, in step with the rest of the economy.