The UK committed last year to reach carbon neutrality by 2050 -- through a legally binding target nonetheless.
But to actually achieve that goal, it must change the way its land is used and farming is carried out. This means, that in addition to planting more trees and conserving peatland areas, people will also have to eat less meat than they currently are.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s official advisers, published a report claiming the amount of beef, lamb and dairy products consumed by the population would have to be cut by a fifth in order to reach the country's climate targets.
If that doesn’t happen on its own, taxes might be needed to be implemented on such products.
“This is one of the most important reports that we have ever produced because a change in land use is absolutely essential if we’re going to meet the requirements of reducing to net zero by 2050,” Lord Deben, chair of the CCC, told the Guardian. “It requires immediate government action. We are in a race against time.”
The authors of the report said that if UK citizens reduce the amount of beef, lamb and dairy they eat for at least 20% as well as reducing food waste by 20% they would save the equivalent of seven million tons of CO2 from farms.
“Grasslands can have a positive impact on soil quality (by storing carbon in the soil) but grassland cannot continuously increase its carbon store. This means grassland cannot be used continually to offset methane emissions from livestock,” they argued.
There will be a 10% drop in the numbers of cattle and sheep by 2050 compared to 2017 levels, the report anticipates, following a 20% already registered in the last two decades. Lands no longer needed could instead support tree crops to burn for energy, it suggests.
While it welcomed the report, the UK’s farming union (NFU) said that on thin soils the only productive use of land is for livestock. “Of British land, 65% is only suitable for grazing livestock and we have the right climate to produce high-quality red meat and dairy,” said Minette Batters, NFU head.
The document also said farmers have to use fertilizers more intelligently, deal with animal waste much better and reduce food waste. There should be a ban on the regular burning on peatland as well as a ban on peat extraction, with the CCC recommending expanding crops grown to be burnt for energy.
Land use, including farms, forests, and peatland, accounted for 12% of all the greenhouse emissions of the UK in 2017, last year with statistics available. Farmers and land managers will have to reduce those emissions by two thirds if the UK wants to achieve carbon neutrality, the report claimed.
Local environmental organizations questioned the report for not being ambitious enough. Re-wilding campaigner George Monbiot told the BBC that the report contains “feeble half-measures” and said that “the level of ambition is not matched with the scale of the climate and ecological emergency.”
Here are some of the objectives that the UK must achieve in order to reach its goals:
- Increasing tree planting – adding 4% of the country's area in forest cover by 2050. This means planting around 30,000 hectares, or 90-120 million trees each year.
- Encouraging low-carbon farming practices – in addition to producing less meat, techniques such as ‘controlled-release’ fertilizers, improving livestock health and slurry acidification can go a long way.
- Restoring peatlands – restoring at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat is particularly important as these are important carbon sinks.
- Encouraging bioenergy crops – expand the planting of UK energy crops to around 23,000 hectares each year.
- Reducing food waste and consumption of the most carbon-intensive foods – cut down on the 13.6 million tonnes of food waste produced annually by 20%. Reduce individual consumption of beef, lamb, and dairy by at least 20% -- something which is well within current healthy eating guidelines.
The report can be accessed fully here.