The folly in farm climate claims

Farmers have seized on a recent fall in emissions as evidence that agriculture is not a major contributor to climate change. David Burrows suggests they are mistaken.

“We’re living through the biggest carbon crash ever recorded,” reported the BBC this month, citing “multiple sources” that indicate this pandemic and the resulting lockdowns have curbed emissions. In China, they fell 25% in February. Data published by Sky News last week showed daily CO2 emissions here in the UK have fallen by 36% since restrictions started.

This is not surprising given the use of planes, trains and automobiles has almost come to a standstill. Industry, by and large, has also been shuttered. But whilst the data offers reason for cheer, it must be viewed with caution.

As Carbon Brief pointed out, global emissions may well be smaller, but additional CO2 is still accumulating in the atmosphere. The site used filling a bath as an analogy. “If the tap represents CO2 emissions, and the water level in the bath is CO2 concentrations, while we have slightly turned the tap down temporarily, water is still flowing into the bath and so the level is still rising. To slow climate change, the tap needs to be turned right down – and permanently.”

What’s more, in all likelihood emissions will bounce back as the economy does (which was the pattern during the financial crisis of 2007/08).

So we mustn’t get carried away. However, farmers seem to be. With the air clearing and emissions falling, the message from the farm gate is: now you can stop blaming us for climate change. This was Carol Lever, director of the Free Range Dairy Network, on the New Food podcast last month:

“Before this [crisis] started, farmers were almost pariahs. They were being blamed for everything you could think of, including climate change. But as we are seeing with less traffic and less flights [sic] the atmosphere is cleaning itself. It’s not necessarily farming that is causing that, it is fossil fuels.”

Lever isn’t the only one buoyed by the current blip in the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants. NFU Scotland vice-president Martin Kennedy latched on to data from the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, which showed how dramatic drops in traffic had – unsurprisingly – resulted in an improvement in air quality

"We are seeing cleaner air and clearer skies, despite our industry still working flat out to produce food for the nation,” he said in an interview with Farmers Guardian. “The industry has constantly been criticised as being part of the problem with regards to climate change, yet this data verifies that transport and aviation are the biggest contributors to global warming."

Well, not exactly. It shows that travel is a big source of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants (which we knew already). As far as I can tell, however, it tells us nothing about agricultural emissions. To this end, the statements are greenwash – the same “twisted analysis” that the NFU believes is being used to put pressure on politicians to deliver policies that result in changes in consumption.

The Committee on Climate Change for example has called for a 20% reduction in beef, lamb and dairy consumption in order to meet the UK’s net zero by 2050 target.

That the coronavirus has knocked this idea on the head is, as Farmers Guardian’s editor put it, “wishful thinking”. “…while the perception of farmers and domestic food production has no doubt been boosted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the issues which so perplexed agriculture before the crisis, in this case the demonisation of livestock production […] are still swirling,” wrote Ben Briggs this month.

Indeed they are. Emissions from UK farms currently amount to 45.6m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) a year – about 10% of the total. Energy and transport are 24% and 27%, respectively. However, there are two points worth making, as I did in an interview with NFU’s climate change lead, Guy Smith, for Transform.

First, food actually consumed in the UK is likely to be far higher, given that we import 48% of our food and rising (our self sufficiency is also being hotly debated). A 2010 study by WWF-UK and the Food Climate Research Network, for example, found that the food we eat could account for 30% of the country’s carbon footprint.

Second, the make-up of farm emissions is different from other sectors: carbon takes a backseat, with methane accounting for 56% of emissions from agriculture in 2017 (47% of total agriculture emissions were from the digestive process of livestock) and nitrous oxide another 31%. Reducing these gases is “more difficult”, according to the NFU, because “they result from complex and imperfectly understood natural soil and animal microbial processes” (the belching ruminant animals).

A debate about the weighting these gases receive in emission figures is also bubbling up. While some scientists highlight that these are extreme greenhouse gases and deserve a large weighting in calculations, another school of thought is that their effects are easier to reverse because they don’t remain in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide. “To a certain extent, the debate going forward is going to be about weighting GHGs or identifying GHGs, and how you carbon account and measure the carbon embedded in food,” Smith told me.

But it won’t only be about this. The debate will also be about how British meat (and dairy) products compare with those in other countries. Are their environmental footprints smaller, for example?

Listen to the NFU and it would seem the answer is a fait accompli. “UK beef emissions are already half that of the global average” said NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts recently, as he hit out at the recent commitment by public sector caterers to reduce the meat in their meals by 20%.

But where is the evidence for this national carbon hoofprint? It’s being referenced, including alongside the NFU’s net zero by 2040 plan – which the union has argued can be met without any reduction in consumption – but I have yet to see the life cycle analysis either published or peer reviewed.

Those in the pig sector would also like a look. At an event just prior to the lockdown, Scottish Pig Producers (SPP) chief executive Andy McGowan called for a more detailed analysis of the industry’s impacts, including that of different systems. In his view, the Scottish government were using figures that were too high but there were no data available to challenge them.

McGowan was actually hopeful that a life cycle analysis would demonstrate indoor pig production as the best approach. More intensive production tends to be more efficient but there is an argument that this disregards other benefits to more extensive agriculture – for example reduced reliance on imported feed, fewer chemicals and benefits to biodiversity.

As Adele Jones, head of programmes at the Sustainable Food Trust, puts it: “There is a lack of understanding about what ‘good’ looks like. We have no idea.”

Jones is currently working on a Defra-funded project (which Footprint will report on in detail later this month) that she hopes will provide some answers. The framework she is working on, covering metrics like biodiversity, air emissions, soil matter and even the health of farm workers, is seen as the solution to all the confusion about what sustainable food actually is. “You can only challenge [proposals like the 20% less consumption] if you have the data to do it,” says Jones.

Indeed, the belief that this pandemic and the resultant dip in emissions will see an end to the debate regarding agricultural emissions and in particular consumption of livestock products is folly. Farmers should realise that it has only just begun.

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