The hillside opposite my front door is a biodiversity hotspot. There’s nowhere, in the UK, where I’ve seen more wildlife. Flowers from cowslips to orchids, insects from glow-worms to meadow-brown butterflies, birds from buzzards to wood-pigeons and mammals from deer to stoats.
But what’s this got to do with yesterday’s (August 8) publication of a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?
Much of the media attention has been on a very small section of the report that looked at diet. Diet is undoubtedly important. As the developing world becomes more affluent – and that’s a good-news story – its inhabitants are demanding a western-style diet with more meat.
Unfortunately, we simply can’t produce enough to do that without trashing the planet. Beef is particularly damaging with emissions equivalent to around 150 kg of carbon dioxide for each kilogram of meat. So, a change to diet is going to have to happen. But that’s not the most important message from the IPCC report.
The key point, for me, is that the report confirms a message that’s been growing in the scientific literature for several years: agriculture and forestry is currently part of the climate-change problem but, with some perfectly achievable changes, it can become a major part of the solution.
To give you some hard numbers, if we change the way we use land it could remove more than 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year from the atmosphere – and that’s nearly a quarter of mankind’s current emissions of about 45 billion tonnes per year.
The fabulous biodiversity of my favourite dog-walking spot is a wonderful illustration of how agricultural practices can help to reduce global warming. The field is used to graze a small herd of bullocks for a few months every year and, otherwise, it is left alone.
The result is a mosaic of scrubland and woodland that resembles the original English landscape before the arrival of humans. It also locks up a great deal of carbon into the plants and, especially, into the rich soil of the hillside. These bullocks are still contributing to global warming, but – overall – their contribution will be much less than that from other rearing methods.
The farmer probably operates this way because it’s the most economic use of an area which is too steep to plough. There may also be restrictions as it is immediately adjacent to Savernake Forest.
Perhaps, like most farmers, he (or she) is also a lover of nature. Whatever the reason, the result is a rare glimpse of what more of our countryside could be like.
One of the changes advocated in the IPCC report is what’s called ‘agroforestry’. This involves growing crops or livestock within a partially forested area – exactly as happens in the field opposite my home.
This practice helps to retain carbon in soils which makes them better able to retain moisture and nutrients. The result is not only healthier crops, but also resistance to flooding and drought. This practice is particularly being advocated for developing countries, but it’s also perfectly applicable in the developed world and could play a role in getting the UK to net zero emissions by 2050.
Of course, there may be a financial costs to doing these kinds of things. If so, then we should pay farmers to do it. This would not be a farm-subsidy. We’d be paying farmers for providing a service almost as important as that of providing food.
9 August 2019