Policy changes ‘needed to support green land use’

The Committee on Climate Change said land must be better used to store carbon and ensure environmental impacts can be mitigated

  • Loss of soil fertility, biodiversity and peatland degradation in the UK 'is now apparent'
  • Land-use policy 'must promote more green practices to support carbon sinks'
  • Biomass 'requires stricter governance' to ensure sustainable supplies

Pathway to COP26 report

Fundamental policy changes are needed to make the UK’s land a more effective carbon store and to ensure climate change impacts upon it can be mitigated.

That’s according to the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which has warned critical services such as clean water, healthy soils, wildlife, timber and food are threatened by a warming climate – it suggests following average UK temperatures having risen by 0.8°C over the last 40 years, loss of soil fertility, biodiversity and peatland degradation are now apparent.

The report shows future projections of the UK climate predict further warming, sea level rise, periods of heavier rain leading to greater risks from flooding as well as reduced water availability in summer.

It says historically, food production has been rewarded over other services that the land can provide – the CCC says from now on, land-use policy must promote increased tree planting, improved forest management, restoration of peatlands and shifts to low carbon farming practices to help reduce flood risks and improve the condition of woodlands and wetlands.

The organisation says the government must encourage this shift by providing incentives, supporting development of skills and helping with up-front costs.

The report also suggests biomass can play an important role in meeting the UK’s 2050 emissions targets but only with stricter governance to ensure sustainable supplies.

It stresses food and biodegradable waste must be collected separately from other refuse in all areas across the UK, with none to be sent to landfill by 2025.

Lord Deben, Chairman of the CCC, said: “Land is our most precious natural asset but the way we use land in this country needs fundamental reform.

“New legislation on agriculture and the environment provide us with a unique opportunity to reward land owners and farmers for actions such as tree planting, restoring peatlands and improving soil and water quality.”

Additional information

Our key findings demonstrate that biomass can be produced and used in ways that are both low-carbon and sustainable. However, improved governance will be essential to ensure this happens in practice. If this is achieved, biomass can make a significant contribution to tackling climate change. If this is not achieved, there are risks that biomass production and use could in some circumstances be worse for the climate than using fossil fuels.

Managing biomass stocks is an important component of global climate mitigation
strategies. However this must be as part of a system of sustainable land use where, as a
minimum requirement, carbon stocks in plants and soils increase over time.

Globally and in the UK, there is scope to increase carbon stocks in trees and soils as well
as to increase the supply of sustainable harvested biomass. Stronger governance is
required to ensure this happens in practice.

There is significant potential to increase domestic production of sustainable biomass
to meet between 5% and 10% of energy demand from UK sources by 2050. The
lower end of this range can be delivered by fully exploiting the UK’s organic waste
resource (after reduction, reuse and recycling) whilst maintaining today’s level of
agricultural and forest residue use.

The upper end of this range requires over a million hectares land to be used for energy crops (around 7% of current agricultural land) and increasing rates of tree planting (to 50,000 hectares every year by 2050).

With imports supplementing domestic resources, a total of up to 15% of the UK’s
primary energy demand could, under certain conditions, come from sustainable
biomass by 2050.3 Achieving this would require the amount of imported biomass to
increase at least threefold compared to current levels.

This will only be possible if strong global sustainability governance is in place and under favourable conditions (limited population growth, diet change and agricultural yield improvements to allow for a release of agricultural land compared to today). High levels of global biomass supply could imply some trade-offs with other sustainability objectives such
as biodiversity and water availability.

Innovations in biomass production and agricultural strategies could enable high
levels of sustainable supply to be achieved without the use of substantial amounts of
productive land. Examples include algae production and the cultivation of highly
water-efficient crops which can be grown in very dry environments not suitable for
other crops.

The development of new low carbon fertilisers could also play a role.
These innovations are not included in our scenarios at this stage, but they offer the
potential to increase the supply of sustainable biomass in the future. We will
monitor developments in these areas closely.

Ensuring that changes in terrestrial carbon stocks in managed forests are fully
accounted for in current sustainability criteria, enhancing monitoring and reporting
and looking at new mechanisms for driving best practice.

A broader approach to managing risks (beyond the current practice of setting
sustainability criteria in subsidies) – for example, by extending the use of
sustainability criteria across procurement and finance rules and through further
strategic coordination of development and trade policy.

In order to provide benefits at an aggregate level, policy needs to look beyond
existing sustainable supply-chains, and drive up standards more widely. This is to
ensure that the UK is not simply sourcing existing sustainable feedstocks while
pushing less sustainable stocks elsewhere.

Sustainably harvested biomass can play a significant role in meeting long-term climate
targets, provided it is prioritised for the most valuable end-uses.

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