COP26 – Relationship between climate and agriculture

Research assistant Lachland McKessar reports.


Climate Change and Agriculture


At present, food production and associated land use change accounts for about a third of all GHG emissions globally. It is also the largest driver of deforestation, habitat destruction and biodiversity loss. Climate change presents a number of direct threats to farmers, including acidification and nutrient loss from soil, eutrophication of water systems and increased heat-stress for livestock. Adapting current land management techniques would partially mitigate against these stresses as well as help to reduce net CO2e emissions. Following Brexit, the UK now has the ability to reshape its agricultural sector and support farmers to become world leaders in sustainable food production. It is the hope of the UK Government that farmers will be able to use their expertise in land management to deliver environmental ‘public goods’ alongside food production, benefitting wider society.


What is COP?


COP26 is widely considered a make-or-break opportunity for the international community to come together and tackle climate change, preventing global temperatures from rising above 1.5oC. Immediate action is required to limit the severity of these changes in the future. As the host nation, the UK wants to take a leading role tackling the climate crisis. Government has already set out its’ target for the UK to reach net-zero CO2e by 2050 (becoming) the first major economy to enshrine this into law and has been vocal about integrating nature and land management into the climate solution.


How can farmers make the difference?


Agriculture has already been identified within COP26 as a key area for further CO2e emissions reduction. Beyond carbon emissions, the value of biodiversity and ecosystem services is becoming fully realised. The Government is acting on this connection through their design of the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme that includes a key focus on climate. The intention behind ELM is to develop a food system where farmers are key producers of environmental benefits as well as food, for which they will be reimbursed and rewarded. Agriculture is set to become more closely linked with ecological and climate outcomes, as the government seeks to tackle all these issues in a more holistic approach. But farmers and land managers are essential to making it a success.


Climate Change Consequences


For land managers and landowners, the transition to more sustainable systems is equally as urgent. Climate and wider environmental conditions are impacting yields and decreasing production. A small change in climate can completely alter the viable crop options for farmers or create health risks for livestock. Cattle farmers in the East and South East of England currently face about 1 week a year of heat stress, but this is expected to increase to up to 2 months a year.  As it stands, many farms that have been run across generations are now facing the very real need to adapt to a changing climate to futureproof their businesses.


Looking forward


Global agriculture and wider land management will be covered in depth at COP26 but some of the changes have already begun. As mentioned, new revenue and financing streams have been developed and rolled out in England, providing a supplementary income for farmers to deliver sustainability and achieve environmental goals. The pressure to increase sustainability is not only top-down from policy makers, as retailers are beginning to make their own climate pledges. Secondly, there has been a significant shift in consumer buying habitats, and farmers will find themselves supplying an increasingly engaged and environmentally conscious market. The political and economic incentives to develop increasingly sustainable methods of production will only continue to grow.


Wilson Wraight will be attending COP26 and looking to advocate for UK farmers in the discussions on farming and land use change. Keep an eye on our social media for more details.