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Net Zero: What it means for UK farming

UK agriculture is at a critical juncture with decisions being made about the industry now which will shape its future for years to come.

At the heart of the political change facing food producers is a move to more ‘climate friendly’ and ‘low carbon’ farming methods.

And with a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2040, a charge led by the NFU, the industry is already making headway, but as the results of our survey (p6-7) show, there is still a long way to go.

This special net zero-themed edition of Farmers Guardian aims to cut through the jargon often associated with net zero, showcase some of the measures already having positive results on farms up and down the country and, importantly, dispel some of the myths and misconceptions about agriculture’s role in the climate change debate.


"Improving productivity on-farm is something farmers have been doing for generations"

It shows how retailers and processors, being driven by an ever more environmentally conscious consumer, are seeking ‘greener’ supply chains, which is in turn prompting change at the farmgate.

And while some change will require investment, there are rewards in terms of increasing business efficiencies and productivity and therefore boosting the bottom line.

NFU deputy president and Hertfordshire farmer Stuart Roberts said: “For me, it is about targeting that sweet spot which has a commercial financial positive on farming.

“Improving the deadweight gains of my cattle means they will finish quicker, which improves my margins, and less methane will be emitted per kilo of beef.


Improving productivity on-farm is something farmers have been doing for generations, but without realising they are contributing towards net zero.” Prof Frank Mitloehner, department of animal science, University of California, who specialises in measurement and mitigation of airborne pollutants from livestock production, said arming farmers with the facts was crucial.

Speaking on the latest Over the Farm Gate podcast, he said: “Animal agriculture is both a carbon source and a carbon sink.

We could be moving animal agriculture into a direction of climate neutrality, where practices do not in a negative way affect climate.

“We do not need a PR campaign, we just need facts, and farmers need to speak up.

“Set reduction goals and communicate with the public that you are pledging further reductions and work aggressively on getting these done.”

Read More

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Productivity gains key to environmental progressProductivity gains key to environmental progress
Carbon calculators comparedCarbon calculators compared

The UK’s journey to a net zero future

  • November 2006

Livestock’s Long Shadow report. A United Nations’ report claimed livestock was responsible for 18 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

  • October 2008

Climate Change Act created to tackle climate change, setting a long-term target for an 80 per cent reduction of emissions by 2050 against 1990 levels.


  • December 2008

Committee on Climate Change (CCC) established. The first meeting of an independent advisory body responsible for recommending the five-year carbon budgets.

  • December 2015

The Paris Agreement. The agreement aimed to limit greenhouse gas emissions ‘as soon as possible’ and keep the global temperature rise to below 2degC.

  • November 2016

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food recommended imposing huge taxes on meat and milk to reduce emissions and ‘save half a million lives a year’.


  • January 2017

CCC warned parts of southern, eastern and central England could become ‘unviable’ for some farming activity due to the effects of climate change.

  • August 2017

Report calls for tax on meat and dairy. An Eating Better Alliance report called on Government to explore all avenues to change people’s eating habits, including taxing meat and dairy.

  • October 2017

The Clean Growth Strategy. Government announced a set of policies and proposals to deliver economic growth while decreasing emissions.

  • 2018

The UK’s third carbon budget is set at 37 per cent. A carbon budget places restrictions on the total amount of GHGs the UK can emit over a five-year period.

  • January 2018

Government published its 25-Year Environment Plan setting out its goals for improving the environment within a generation and leaving it in a better state.


  • October 2018

IPCC report recommends move away from eating meat. The panel recommended people move away from eating meat to stop global warming reaching a dangerous level.


  • January 2019

NFU launched Net Zero by 2040 ambition. NFU president Minette Batters launched industry’s Net Zero by 2040 ambition at the Oxford Farming Conference.

  • January 2019

EAT- Lancet recommends lower intake of animal products, with the aim of reducing consumption of red meat by 50 per cent. The report was later torn apart.


  • March 2019

Offshore Wind Energy Revolution. Government announced £40 billion would be spent on infrastructure during the next decade to deliver 30GW of offshore wind.

  • May 2019

CCC recommends new emissions target for UK, setting a net zero emissions goal for 2050 to keep the global temperature increase under 1.5degC.

  • July 2019

Myles Allen, a professor from the University of Oxford, said a 20 per cent drop in methane emissions would cause global cooling.

  • August 2019

IPCC describes plant-based diets as a major opportunity for mitigating and adapting to climate change. Panel also recommends policy to reduce meat consumption.


  • November 2019

NFU hits out at BBC’s Meat: a Threat to our Planet?, saying it was the latest attack from the media which singled out red meat production as a leading cause of climate change.

  • January 2020

Year of Climate Action. The Government outlined a year of action in the run up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). The conference has been postponed until 2021.

  • September 2020

Prince Charles warns climate change is a comprehensive catastrophe that will dwarf the impact of Covid-19 in a virtual message ahead of Climate Week.

Glossary of net zero terminology

  • Carbon offsetting:

An action or process of compensation for greenhouse gases made from human or industrial activity by making equivalent reductions of greenhouse gas levels elsewhere


  • Carbon sequestration:

The removal, capture and storage of carbon from the atmosphere n Carbon sink: Any process, activity or mechanism that removes carbon from the atmosphere n Climate change: Long-term changes in the Earth’s climate


  • Global warming:

An increase in the Earth’s average surface temperature from human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions


  • Greenhouse gases:

Gases that trap heat from the Earth and warm the surface, such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane


  • GHG footprint:

A term referring to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, organisation, service or product, expressed as a carbon dioxide equivalent. Often also described as a carbon footprint, but using the phrase GHG footprint ensures everyone understands that all GHGs are included in the calculation


  • Net zero:

Achieving net zero means reducing global greenhouse gas emissions to a much lower level than today – and balancing the remaining emissions by reabsorbing the same amount from the atmosphere


  • Water footprint:

Measurement of the amount and impact of water used to produce each of the goods and services we use

Visit the Net Zero home page

Visit the Net Zero home page

With a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2040, there is still a long way to go.


Visit the Net Zero home page to cut through the jargon and view our brand new showcase of some of the measures already having positive results on farms up and down the country.


Click here to go to the Net Zero home page

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