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Our natural land: part of the solution to tackling climate change

Natural land is one of our key resources. It provides a wide range of goods and services – food, timber, clean water, energy, wildlife habitats, carbon storage, flood management as well as green spaces vital for our physical and mental health and other recreation activities. While some of these benefits can be valued in monetary terms, others have no market value, which makes it all the more important to recognise their worth.

Many of the options for reducing emissions considered in the Committee’s analysis depend on how land is used. For example, reducing emissions from agriculture relies on being able to change farming practices; growing crops for bioenergy uses agricultural land; increasing tree planting requires additional land for forestry; whist land is also important for building resilience to climate change – for flood prevention, preserving biodiversity and soil and water quality.

Bringing these various strands together is the focus of a new CCC land use project. The project is employing a holistic approach to examine how non-developed land is used now and how this could change in the future – to 2050 and beyond. The way we use our land needs to deliver deeper cuts in emissions, ensure resilience to climate change, and account for the growing demands on our land from an increasing population.

This project comes at an important time. Last December, in Paris, 195 nations agreed an aim to hold the increase in average global temperature to well below 2°C and to “pursue efforts” to limit it to 1.5°C. They also agreed that global greenhouse gas emissions should decline to net zero in the second half of the century – meaning human activity needs to sequester more carbon than it emits. The Committee is currently assessing the implications of the Paris Agreement on the UK’s longer term climate change commitments to 2050 and beyond.

Today we’re publishing the first part of our land use work; an initial scoping study which assesses the current evidence about how UK land is used and how land use is measured. The study looks at different drivers of land use, as well as the relevant metrics and indicators we need to monitor changes in land use and land use management. It also reviews the available land use and land use impact models.

The project has involved consultation with a broad cross-section of specialists in the agriculture, forestry, land use modelling and ecosystem services sectors. Together, we’ve explored possible pathways to achieving net zero emissions – or ‘carbon neutrality’ – in the UK agriculture and land use sectors beyond 2050. These include diet change (primarily reducing consumption of carbon-intensive red meats); improved technological efficiency of agriculture (improved yields, greater use of crops with lower fertiliser requirements); multi-functional land-use (such as agro-forestry); and increasing carbon sinks (planting more trees and restoring peatlands).

The second stage of the project will involve more detailed modelling so we can see if it’s possible to achieve deeper emissions cuts in the agriculture and land use sector, whilst preserving the essential services and functions that our natural land provides. We will also assess the links, synergies and trade-offs between the need to reduce emissions in line with our climate change goals, and the need to prepare our land for the impacts of a changing climate. And we’re keen to quantify the benefits and costs of the various emissions reduction pathways described above.

We will be publishing the tender for this second phase in the autumn. If you’re interested in finding out more, or if you are a researcher and think you may be able to contribute, please get in touch: communications@theccc.gsi.gov.uk or 0207 591 6080.