Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK

Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK is the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change chaired by Lord Deben, who as John Selwyn Gummer was Secretary of State for Agriculture 1989 to 1993 and then Environment 1993 to 1997.  It is the latest important publication to call for big changes in farming and rural land use in the UK.  The infographic below is provided on the committee’s website to summarise the report’s recommendations, but what does this mean for land use overall in the UK?


In the committee’s own words:

“Net Zero requires a transformation in land use across the UK. The report sets out a detailed range of options to drive emissions reductions in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

    • Increase tree planting – increasing UK forestry cover from 13% to at least 17% by 2050 by planting around 30,000 hectares (90 – 120 million trees) of broadleaf and conifer woodland each year.
    • Encourage low-carbon farming practices – such as ‘controlled-release’ fertilisers, improving livestock health and slurry acidification.
    • Restore peatlands – restoring at least 50% of upland peat and 25% of lowland peat.
      Encourage bioenergy crops – expand the planting of UK energy crops to around 23,000 hectares each year.
    • Reduce food waste and consumption of the most carbon-intensive foods – reduce the 13.6 million tonnes of food waste produced annually by 20% and the consumption of beef, lamb and dairy by at least 20% per person, well within current healthy eating guidelines.”

The tree planting target is consistent with the figure of 75,000 acres a year by the end of this Parliament announced in the Queen’s Speech.  It may be interesting to consider this figure in the context of UK agricultural land use statistics (mainly taken from Defra 2019: Agriculture in the UK 2018):

  • Utilised agricultural area in the UK = 17.4 million hectares
  • Of this the cropped area is 6.1 million hectares.  This includes all crops, horticulture and short-term grass leys
  • The area of ‘permanent pasture’, or grass over 5 years old is a little over 10 million hectares but of this nearly 4 million hectares are sole grazing rights over the land owned by others.  This leaves slightly over 6 million hectares of permanent pasture on farms.
  • Some of these farms will be tenanted farms.  Detailed statistics are not available at this level, but broadly about a third of farmland in England is rented, and about a quarter in Scotland.  Assuming that about a quarter of the permanent pasture on farms is rented this leaves about 4.5 million hectares of permanent pasture.
  • Planting 30,000 ha of trees for 30 years (2020 to 2050) will accumulate to 900,000 ha by 2050 – a mere 5% of the utilised agricultural area of the UK, but about 20% of the owner-occupied area of permanent pasture.

These figures can be no more than illustrative given the nature of the data itself and the assumptions made about tenure.

Nevertheless it seems unlikely that farmers will be willing to divert their best farmland to growing trees without powerful incentives to do so, and the existence of the landlord-tenant relationship seems more likely to be an obstacle than an incentive to change land use in this way – again without powerful incentives which recognise and address this barrier.

This therefore leaves the poorest farmland where the farmer is in direct control without the complication of the landlord-tenant relationship.  Given the economic outlook for farming itself on some of these areas it seems likely that these will be the areas most likely to go over to woodlands.  We should think carefully about the implications of this for the rural economy, for the rural skills base, for other rural benefits and with a view to the environmental impact on what may be some of our most ecologically valuable farmland.  It is time for some careful planning and modelling of how these ambitious targets are to be achieved.  This must take into account the practical human and business dimensions of change on such a scale.

The committee’s report can be seen here:

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