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New Research reveals keys to reducing farming’s carbon impact

8th Aug 2013

Land is not being used to its best advantage according to a new study by Professor Unai Pascual from the Basque Centre for Climate Change and a team of environmental economists from Europe.

Research published in the journal Science shows that allowing land use to be determined purely by agricultural markets results in considerable financial and environmental costs to the public, but that a refocusing of public policies could substantially improve the situation.

Land use in most of Europe is dominated by agriculture, but nearly half the total annual value of EU agriculture is based on public financial support exceeding 70% and 40% in Ireland and the UK respectively.

The research team, led by Professor Ian Bateman from the University of East Anglia, investigated the value for money of such public support in the UK. Looking at half a million land use records, they found that current land use patterns represent poor value for money to society relative to the level of subsidy agriculture receives.

The researchers calculated the economic value of current and future agricultural land uses due to climate change, including the value of food production and associated environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions and reduced recreation for people.

They also took into account the impact of declining wild species and biodiversity caused by intensive farming. Looking to the future, the research weighed up the consequences of alternative land uses and assessed a range of scenarios running until the year 2060.

Their analysis showed that basing land-use decisions on market prices alone can reduce the overall value of land at a national scale. Professor Unai Pascual said:

“This study provides evidence that conventional support for intensive agriculture in Europe is not working well enough for society. Policy should instead confront the reality of over-relying on agricultural markets as this generates unnecessary costs to society in terms of negative environmental impacts, many of which may be irreversible such as biodiversity loss. We have put a value to such costs and found that if market dominated agricultural policies in Europe are not changed we will also continue to see a reduction in the flow of benefits that landscapes offer to society.”

The study demonstrates the importance of bringing ecosystem services into decision-making and making full use of the potential gains from working with the natural environment. But it acknowledges that this does not come without practical challenges. A key challenge concerns the mechanics of securing the participation of farmers in delivering land-use changes that benefit society.

The study’s main recommendation is reform of the European Union’s (EU’s) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). They argue that recasting the CAP as a Payment for Ecosystem Services mechanism would reward farmers for delivering a bundle of key ecosystem services, including climate change mitigation:

“With the evidence at hand it is imperative that there is a U-turn in land use policies that allows us to maximise the economic benefits of landscapes by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water pollution, enhanced recreation and urban green-space, and improvements in biodiversity,” said Professor Pascual.

“The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy must account for the cost of not working with nature. It is time to reward farmers for securing the vital ecosystem services that are highly valued by society. Farmers can be the stewards of our landscapes so that we as a society we can pass them in a healthy state to the next generations.”

Agriculture accounts for 9% of Britain’s Greenhouse Gas emissions (GHGs); at the Farm Carbon Cutting Toolkit, we offer advice to farmers on how they can reduce their GHGs and their impact on the environment. Simple measures like reducing waste and increasing efficiency, or investing in renewable technologies, can help reduce your farm’s carbon footprint and avoid the worst outcomes of Climate Change.

The FCCT has a complete toolkit for reducing farm GHG emissions and improving efficiency on your farm, including its own carbon calculator, all of which is freely available on its website.