Major changes to UK land use needed to tackle climate change, advisers warn

A fifth of land should be taken out of agricultural production and used for carbon storage such as woodland, the report said Credit: Nick Ansell/PA

A levy on airlines or fossil fuel companies could be introduced to help pay for a huge boost to woodland planting, Government climate advisers have urged.

The Committee on Climate Change made the recommendation in a new report calling for major and urgent changes to how land is managed to help the UK reach its legal target to cut emissions to net zero by 2050.

A fifth of agricultural land needs to be taken out of production and freed up for natural methods of storing carbon such as more woodlands and trees, the first in-depth report on land use from the committee urges.

Encouraging people to cut the beef, lamb and dairy they eat by a fifth – which the committee said was a “modest” reduction within Government health guidelines – will help cut greenhouse gases and free up land for storing carbon.

Around 30,000 hectares or 100 million trees a year need to be planted from 2023 up to mid-century, a significant increase on today’s levels of planting, which were around 13,000 hectares last year.

A system similar to the subsidies which have boosted renewable energy in recent years, with auctions for contracts for planting and guaranteed long-term payments for land managers, could deliver the required increase.

An alternative method would be a carbon trading scheme, and either policy could be paid for by greenhouse gas-emitting industries such as fossil fuel providers or airlines, the report suggests.

Public money should also go to creating and managing woodlands, planting trees and boosting hedgerows which deliver other benefits such as flood prevention and wildlife habitat.

The study also said half the country’s upland peat areas must be restored, alongside a quarter of lowland peat areas.

The Government must ban damaging practices such as rotational burning on peatland – used by grouse moor managers to boost new heather for red grouse – and peat extraction, with sales of peat for horticulture also banned.

Low-carbon farming methods also need to be encouraged, such as feeding cattle supplements which cut their methane emissions, along with cutting food waste by a fifth and expanding bioenergy crops.

The changes outlined in the report would cost around £1.4 billion a year in private and public funding up to 2050, but would deliver £4 billion in annual benefits, the committee said.

Some 12% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions came from the way land is used in the country in 2017, but with the right support for farmers and land managers, that could be cut by almost two thirds by 2050, it said.

The report is being published as land management policies are undergoing a huge shake-up as the UK quits the EU subsidy regime and, in England, shifts towards payments for “public goods”.

Lord Deben, chairman of the Committee on Climate Change, said: “Changing the way we use our land is critical to delivering the UK’s net zero target.

“The options we are proposing would see farmers and land managers – the stewards of the land – delivering actions to reduce emissions.

“Doing so can provide new revenue opportunities for farmers, better air quality and improved biodiversity, and more green spaces for us all to enjoy.”

But he said the changes could not be delivered in the normal course of business, and warned: “We are in a race against time, there’s no doubt urgency must be the hallmark of what we are doing here.”

Achieving emissions reductions should not be at the expense of producing less food in the UK and increasing imports, the report said.

Committee chief executive Chris Stark said British beef and lamb has some of the lowest rates of emissions in the world but greenhouse gases from livestock still needed to be cut.

He said it was a question of eating “a little less meat, but when you eat it, you should know you can go for high-quality produce in the UK and know it has lower greenhouse gas emissions than imports”.

Measures to shift diets could include increasing plant-based options, better labelling and, if needed, subsidies and taxes to encourage lower carbon eating, the report said.

A Government spokesman said ministers would consider the report’s recommendations closely, and added: “Tackling climate change and the impact on our environment is both a national and international priority, and the UK is already leading the fight against it by delivering on our world-leading target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

“That’s why we’re reforming farming policy to reward environmental actions, reviewing our food system to ensure it is more sustainable, taking steps to accelerate tree-planting and peatland restoration, and introducing a flagship Environment Bill to address the biggest environmental priorities of our age.”