Challenge for agriculture as emissions progress stalls

Agriculture is expected to miss key reduction targets for greenhouse gases. With bold new policies needed, shifting demand could be the next step. By Nick Hughes.

The UK’s transition to a resilient low-carbon economy is in danger of being derailed by a lack of government action on climate change. That was the stark warning issued by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) last month as it reported progress on meeting the UK’s carbon budgets.

The CCC noted that good progress has been made towards the UK’s 2050 commitment to reduce emissions by at least 80% on 1990 levels – greenhouse gas emissions are now about 42% lower than in 1990 – but warned that effective new policies and strategies are urgently needed to ensure that emissions continue to fall.

From a food industry perspective there was one especially significant observation – tucked away on page 142 of the report - that diets would need to shift and food waste would need to be reduced to deliver the necessary cuts in agricultural emissions before 2030.

This has major implications for the food industry, not least because climate change mitigation efforts in the agriculture sector have so far focused exclusively on reducing emissions at a farm level through measures such as energy efficiency, precision farming and better soil management.

Such measures, although they have reduced emissions, have stopped delivering the sustained improvements demanded by the UK’s carbon budgets, meaning the agricultural sector is not on track to meet its 2022 emissions target. There has been little change in agricultural emissions over the past six years and no change in 2015 from the previous year.

The share of agricultural emissions compared with total UK emissions, meanwhile, reached a high of 10% in 2015, reflecting the slow progress in reducing agriculture’s emissions and the faster pace of decarbonisation in other sectors.

The CCC is challenging DEFRA to come up with a plan to reduce emissions further and faster.

As a starting point, it suggests that after Brexit the Common Agricultural Policy should be replaced with a UK-based policy framework that links financial support more closely to reduction of emissions.

In the longer term, it says, demand-side measures such as diet change and reducing food waste will be needed to make deeper cuts in agricultural emissions beyond 2030, adding that consideration of these options before 2030 will be required in order to prepare for their implementation.

Such a statement from an authoritative body puts the UK government in a difficult position. DEFRA has acknowledged that increased cuts in agricultural emissions are required in the 2020s and beyond and has cited options including the development of agri-technologies, novel production systems and innovative food products.

The current administration is not minded to tell people what to eat, however, so if it can’t find a means of sufficiently reducing emissions through supply-side measures then targets will be missed.

The alternative is to put ideology to one side and consider pragmatic policies that shift demand away from high-impact foods to those with a lower footprint.

WWF’s recently updated Livewell Plates show that measures such as eating more plants, legumes and grains could help cut greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030.

How to achieve this shift is the million-dollar question.

From a policy perspective, a meat tax could be one demand-side option considered by the government given the relatively high level of emissions from livestock compared with horticulture.

WWF, meanwhile, is calling on the government to incorporate sustainability criteria into the Eatwell Guide, creating an incentive for food businesses – especially those competing for public contracts – to provide more climate-friendly meal options.

While agriculture is stalling, there is marginally better news in the waste sector, where emissions fell 7% in 2015 and accounted for about 4% of total UK greenhouse gases.

The CCC notes that government policy to reduce waste has scored some successes, notably the landfill tax which has been a key cause of an 84% reduction in the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill since 1990. But it adds that to achieve further gains, policy will need to shift towards prevention of waste including food waste.

The scrapping of best-before dates, a curb on multi-buy promotions and relaxing rules on feeding surplus food to animals are just a handful of policy options being floated by experts and campaigners with the potential to reduce food waste and thus relieve some of the pressure on production. There is little sign, however, that any of these measures are under serious consideration by the government.

The government has not yet had to directly challenge downstream businesses to help it achieve its climate change commitments. But the message from the CCC is clear: we are close to exhausting the gains from supply-side measures. The next leap will only be made by tackling demand. That means every food business, no matter where it sits in the supply chain, will have a role to play if the UK is to make good on its climate change commitment.

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