In the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019 the Scottish Government committed to reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045.  The recently published Farming for 1.5º Report - A Transformation Pathway (‘the Report’) follows an independent inquiry sponsored by the National Farmers Union of Scotland and Nourish Scotland, an NGO campaigning on food justice issues in Scotland.  The Report stresses that agriculture, which contributes some 18% of Scotland’s emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, can be part of the solution to climate change, through renewed focus on activities such as agroforestry.  Scotland failed to meet its interim target of achieving greenhouse gas emissions of 56% by 2020 so the focus is now on the 2030 target of 75% (these targets are set against baselines of 1990 or 1995 depending on the type of gas)

Since the end of the Second World War, UK agriculture has focused on maximising production.  The Report pushes for efficiency rather than raw output and advocates positive change which does not threaten Scotland’s rural economy and the livelihoods of the 67,000 people directly employed by agriculture in Scotland.

The Report highlights the potential of Scottish agriculture to become not only carbon neutral, but carbon positive.  This will allow the industry to off-set historic carbon emissions (sometimes referred to as ‘legacy carbon’), or to off-set emissions from other industries that are unable to meet the net-zero target themselves.  Significantly, the Report identifies that farmers should be rewarded for this through the existing Woodland Carbon Code (the “WCC”).  The WCC is a Government-backed code which quantifies the carbon sequestered by registered landowners and allows such carbon to be sold in the form of Woodland Carbon Units to other business or individuals looking to offset their emissions.

The Report sets out five phases, starting with education and data gathering, through to changes in management practice.  No detailed time-scale has been set for these phases (though some actions are envisaged by 2024 in terms of Phase One).  Phase One is about “Culture Change” and includes a ‘whole farm’ approach to measuring emissions that includes the carbon sequestration of grassland and renewable energy use in measuring greenhouse gas emissions; two factors which are not currently included in the internationally agreed audit standards.  A new approach to knowledge transfer will inform farmers of better practices and more efficient methods.  The intent is to promote a wholesale change in mindset which will drive the industry towards the 2045 target.  This shift in attitude and a more accurate means of calculating specific emissions will inform the decisions made during the subsequent phases.

The Report envisions that Phase Two will see farmers implementing recommended changes, which it considers should be financially supported.  Improved genetics, management and animal health will improve the fertility of our breeding herds which will reduce methane emissions per kg of meat or milk produced.  Arable farmers will reduce their dependence on synthetic chemicals and move away from traditional methods of tillage to low disturbance techniques which minimise carbon emissions.  Support for soil sampling will allow farmers to better target the synthetic fertiliser they do use, which will reduce emissions per ton of crop produced.  The sector’s consumption of energy will also need to be tackled in a manner much like any other industry, although agriculture is almost uniquely positioned in its potential to harness renewable energy.

Phase Three will offer two approaches to Scottish farmers.  Approach A would focus on production, and a support premium would be paid to compensate for costs.  Approach B would embrace low-emission production, and would have an enhanced support premium to compensate for constraints on production.  Phase Four sees a greater emphasis placed on low-emissions production and ‘multi-functional’ methods are suggested, such as agroforestry which allows arboriculture and agriculture to existing symbiotically.  Phase Five suggests greater efficiencies will allow an increasing amount of land to be planted.  Neither Phase Four nor Phase Five are explored in great detail in the Report, however a further report is expected in due course.

The Report directly challenges the Committee on Climate Change’s report which advocates that productive lowland farming be intensified, while upland farming is converted to forestry or wetlands.  This would represent the planting of a vast proportion of Scotland’s farms, given that an increase in tree cover from 20% to 30% of Scotland’s land area by 2050 is being advocated.  The Report highlights the damage this is likely to cause to our rural economy, and instead, argues for a change in mindset and methods, which will maintain employment and population.

Instead, a general drive for efficiency will prevail.  Efficiency of breeding, efficient use of inputs, and accordingly, an ‘efficient’ emission of greenhouse gases.  These ought to underpin farm profitability, and sustain the rural economy.  A proportion of Scottish farmers already operate with a Phase Two mindset, and many of these individuals are driving on-farm change in management practices.  With only 25 years to meet the target, this impetus and appetite for change will be essential.