The environment ministry has been effectively put into special measures, with a "tiger team" assembled to deliver a countryside climate plan, quickly.
Reporting yesterday on a leaked Whitehall memo, Oliver Wright at the Times revealed it acknowledged that “Defra is currently not on track to deliver against its greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for CB [carbon budget] 4, 5, 6 and does not have an agreed policy pipeline that allows us to meet them.”
According to the report, the new team will identify the “challenges and barriers” to reducing emissions from agriculture, as Ministers gear up to make decisions, within months, with huge and lasting consequences for how Britain's landscapes are used and managed (and, in turn, their associated climate footprint).
Cutting carbon from land use is curiously, and wrongly, perceived to be a relatively uncontroversial part of the net zero debate. Yes, tree-planting and nature protection are popular but, beyond the leafy canopy, we find deep-rooted vested interests battling hard for the status quo.
The impact of Net Zero on these powerful lobbies - the land bankers, agri firms, and developers, the shooting people, the food retailers and more - was likely not front of mind for the Prime Minister when he appointed the farmers’ farmer George Eustice to take over Defra after the reforming years under Michael Gove. But the path this Cornish countryman now chooses could have big knock-on effects on our diets, the survival of rural livelihoods and traditions, what our uplands look like, and how much nature lives there. All this of course is also bound up with post-Brexit trade deals and what sort of farming they incentivise at home and abroad.
It’s not hard to see why difficult decisions have so far been avoided. But, as things stand, farming in the UK accounts for more than a tenth of the country's climate footprint. According to the Climate Change Committee, a shift in agricultural practices, and a reduction in sheep and cattle numbers are needed to bring this figure right down. This is something that may begin to happen anyway as a response to the growing numbers of people choosing to cut back on their meat and dairy intake.
There's also increasing recognition that storing carbon in nature - via soil, peatland, trees, seagrasses - must play a key role, yet our peatlands are currently so degraded from grazing that they've become a source of emissions instead and we are one of the least wooded countries in Europe. As head of the Climate Change Committee, Chris Stark, told Ben Spencer at The Sunday Times for his brilliant feature on the importance of peatland: “It provides the ‘net’ in ‘net zero’... We will struggle to get emissions to zero. We will always have emissions from farming and flying, so we need to therefore have something on the other side of the ledger, which is the carbon that we steward in the natural environment.”
Natural England recently published a detailed breakdown of the carbon storage potential of our habitats, following similar studies by the Royal Society and the RSPB. One of the first tests the government takes this seriously will be whether they legislate to protect peatland from the damage inflicted by grouse shooters and garden centres.
So, how to pay for all of this?
First, there's the post-Brexit agri-subsidy scheme. As Environment Secretary, Michael Gove won broad support for linking public money for farmers to their contribution to delivering public goods like richer wildlife, healthier rivers, and lower emissions. It was seen as a major Brexit dividend. The Climate Change Committee has advised that any climate benefits paid for this way should be for the take up of measures that cost farmers money and demonstrably wouldn't happen otherwise.
Right now, Defra is designing the criteria that will determine who qualifies to receive a cheque from the Chancellor through this so-called ELM (Environmental Land Management Scheme). Although some funding is likely to be earmarked for restoring habitats like native woodlands, current proposals suggest the majority will go to farmers to do what they've always done. There's little sign that Eustice shares his predecessor's appetite for using ELM to drive a transformative switch to more nature and climate-friendly farming methods.
Second, Ministers are considering whether to extend their new post-Brexit carbon trading scheme to cover land use industries. Carbon trading is essentially the process of buying and selling pollution credits, enabling companies polluting too much to make a deal with other businesses to cut their footprint when it's cheaper to do that than to produce less pollution themselves. Many campaigners and scientists are worried about whether it's possible to accurately verify if carbon reductions through a trading approach like this are real, genuine and additional. This is especially difficult to manage properly when it comes to land use because of how many farms there are. It becomes acutely problematic when you get into the weeds of whether, for example, a farmer should benefit financially from changing their soil management practises!
Unsurprisingly, folks like the NFU spy an opportunity in the idea because it could unlock a significant private revenue stream whereby farmers get paid to grow bioenergy crops by other polluters wanting to meet their own climate obligations as cheaply as possible. Foresters also see incentives to be paid to plant large plantations of fast-growing conifers.
Analysts at Chatham House, like the nature groups, fear the drastic and negative impact on the natural world that would follow a big intensification in monoculture plantations, which would put meeting the Prime Minister's flagship target for nature restoration beyond reach. They argue the carbon savings from growing bioenergy are, in any case, dubious.
A further worry is whether a scheme like this would create a loophole for the biggest polluters; for example, if oil companies are allowed to pay farmers or foresters to avoid shifting away from oil and gas to comply with their targets. (Witness Greenpeace revealing what the airlines are up to.)
But supporters of the trading idea, including some leading Conservative environmentalists, argue the carbon trading scheme could deliver additional cuts in emissions over and above all other changes in the economy; that strong regulations and safeguards should be able to mitigate the risks; and that this may be the only realistic way to get serious levels of investment into nature restoration schemes without significant public finance.
The Climate Change Committee noted this approach could reduce the pressure on taxpayers (something that won't have escaped the Treasury who have long been sceptical of subsidising landowners to the tune of billions) but added this type of policy would "need to be carefully designed to avoid potential negative impacts and ensure carbon credits from land-based solutions are not available to offset emissions reductions that are needed to meet net zero in other parts of the economy”.
What's clear is if Defra botches its new climate plan, the repercussions could include higher food prices, loss of precious wildlife, missing the net zero target, or a perverse situation whereby emissions do fall within the UK's borders but go up in other countries. For example, an overly parochial and reductionist approach to hitting our domestic climate targets could lead to the loss of carbon and nature-rich habitats overseas to meet food demand that might have been met at a lower environmental cost by our own farmers.
Almost every organisation with a stake in what happens next - farmers, foresters, conservationists and landowners - is busily working behind the scenes to gain influence. The EU is watching, too, as the debate over reform of the Common Agricultural Policy once again ramps up. Who wins this battle for the future of our countryside is uncertain but at least it's now well and truly underway.