Moving towards a net zero emissions target is a necessity for agriculture post-Brexit, but getting there can deliver a series of benefits for farmers, says Tom Lancaster, principal policy officer for agriculture at the RSPB.
This week, I had an ice cream on the idyllic Kings Parade in Cambridge, bathed in warm evening sunshine. It was terrifying.
Now I’m not afraid of ice cream. Far from it. In fact, give me the entire quota for #Februdairy, and I’d be a happy man.
But while dairy farmers who have diversified into ice cream may be wishing the mercury to go ever higher, 20 degrees in February is not right.
It is a sign of just how far down the climate change rabbit hole we have already gone. And of the need for urgent action before it’s too late.
Gone is the time when steady as she goes would do it. It’s now or never, and net zero greenhouse gas emissions is the only course of action available to us if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
More than any other industry, farming is on the front line of environmental change. That is why it was so encouraging to see Minette Batters, the president of the NFU, committing the industry to aim for net zero by 2040.
At a time when there is a dearth of leadership in this country, such clear direction in response to an existential challenge is refreshing.
It also recognises that while farming is a significant source of emissions, standing at 11 per cent of the UK total, it is also the dominant land use, and therefore key to wider efforts to achieve net zero.
And while some in the industry, particularly livestock farmers, may feel this drive to reduce emissions poses a threat, recent experience suggests the costs of inaction would be far higher.
Last summer’s drought should leave us in no doubt about what ice creams in February mean for the future of farming.
Shortages of winter feed for livestock farmers, or of water resources for horticultural growers, which look increasingly likely this year, will only become more acute as the impacts of climate change begin to bite ever deeper.
A drive for net zero though should not be looked at as a burden to bear, or the least worst option. Instead, we – farmers, conservationists, ice cream eaters! – should look at it as an opportunity.
Looking ahead to future, post-Brexit agriculture policies, what farmers and land managers can do to mitigate climate change sits among a bigger basket of ‘public goods’ which is likely to form the basis of future public payments.
Action to mitigate emissions, such as restoring and creating habitats, ranging from hedgerows to woodlands and peatlands, presents the chance for a significant income stream in the future.
This, alongside support for investing in climate smart technologies, highlights the steps needed to get to net zero can offer a range of win-wins for the farming industry.
Climate neutral farming and food production also offers a way for the industry to connect with a younger generation for whom climate change is a primary concern.
During ‘Veganuary’ many farmers were bemoaning the tendency of millennials to shy away from livestock products – embracing action on climate change can help stem this disconnection.
With MPs debating net zero in Parliament on Thursday this week, this issue will rise up the political agenda as the impacts of climate change become ever more apparent.
For our collective future, the future of wildlife, and for the future of farming specifically, moving to net zero by 2040 is not a choice.
It is a necessity, and one that can help us build a farming industry fit for the twenty first century.
Tom can be found tweeting at @tommlancaster