Make airlines and oil firms pay for tree-planting boom, says UK report

24 Jan, 10:14
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Make airlines and oil firms pay for tree-planting boom, says UK report

Oil companies and airlines should pay for a colossal tree-planting drive to fight climate change as soon as next year, the UK government’s climate advisers have urged.

The proposal to grow more trees, which draw carbon out of the atmosphere and store it, is one of the eye-catching ideas presented by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) today in a report on the big changes in farming and land use necessary for the UK to hit its 2050 net zero emissions target, which was enshrined in law last year.

The report calls for a fifth of farmland to be used to store carbon instead of producing food, a rapid expansion of crops grown for energy, and measures to encourage the public to eat 20 per cent less beef, lamb and dairy.

To meet the net zero target, emissions from land use will have to fall 64 per cent by 2050, equivalent to a total of 37 megatonnes of carbon dioxide. Trees and forestry could deliver around half the reduction. Land use, including agriculture, forestry and peatland, accounts for 12 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the committee’s key proposals is taking 22 per cent of farmland out of food production and turning it over to other uses such as tree-planting. The UK currently produces half its own food, so other changes would be needed to keep everyone fed. The CCC thinks the answer is a big increase in agricultural productivity – which it argues is feasible as the UK already lags other countries on this – plus a shift in diets and an end to food waste.

The way farmers work will need to change, too. That includes relatively simple ideas such as avoiding soil compaction to more innovative ones, such as breeding cows to belch less methane. Many of the ideas are similar to those suggested by farmers themselves. “It really is time we ended this adversarial discussion between climate and farming,” says Chris Stark at the CCC.

The National Farmers’ Union, which has set a target for agriculture in England and Wales to reach net zero emissions by 2040, said it welcomed the report’s acknowledgement that emissions from UK beef production were much lower than the global average. In a statement, its president Minette Batters said: “A comprehensive approach across the whole UK economy is needed, and when it comes to farming we need to focus on the whole agricultural system.”

Getting people to eat less meat and dairy may sound hard, but consumption of both is already falling in the UK. “This isn’t a revolutionary proposal,” says John Gummer, chair of the CCC. The public sector can lead by offering a daily vegan choice on menus, but by 2025 the government should consider stronger options to shape dietary choices, such as pricing, the group says.

That could be a meat tax, something other researchers have said would save lives and money. For now, the CCC’s message is to eat less meat and choose local produce, as emissions from UK beef production are lower than in many other countries.

However, the biggest push is in tree-planting, something political parties tried to outbid each other on during the last general election. The CCC thinks that by 2024 there needs to be a minimum of 30,000 hectares of trees planted a year, equivalent to around 100 million trees a year. “That is doable, we’ve have had similar rates of planting before,” says Stark – the last time was in the 1980s.

The area covered by trees would rise from 13 per cent of the UK now to 17 to 19 per cent by 2050 (Friends of the Earth even thinks 26 per cent is possible). The cost is estimated at £500 million a year, to be paid for by a levy on polluters, with fossil fuel producers and aviation named in the report.

Overall, farmers and landowners face a total cost of £1.4 billion a year for all the measures to cut emissions related to land use, which the CCC says should be paid for through a mix of private and public funds. But it calculates the net benefits to society, including better air quality, at £4 billion a year.

Dave Reay at the University of Edinburgh in the UK says the report is very well-researched and blunt in its message. “UK land use must change, and fast,” he says. “It’s really good to see the consideration of future support for farmers.”

The CCC says land use change takes time, so action is needed urgently and the group wants many of its ideas adopted this year. Gummer says: “These are major changes and cannot be delivered just in the normal course of business. It really does require government action and that needs to be immediate. We are in a race against time.”

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