Wither the additionality?

Can upland sheep farms really be "carbon neutral"?

Can upland sheep farms really be "carbon neutral"?

According to a recent report, upland sheep farming is good news for the environment. A Northumberland sheep farmer commissioned a report looking into the greenhouse gas emissions from two farms. The report, produced by the Food Animal Initiative 2008, makes use of the Country Land and Business Association‘s CALM calculator, which was designed to enable farmers to work out their annual GHG emissions.

The two farms were found to have yearly emissions of 3.2 tonnes CO2e per hectare, which the report claims compares favourably with the national average of 4 and 6 tCO2e for other grazing LFA (Less Favoured Area) and lowland grazing systems, respectively. [Note, though, the recent Natural England study from which the report draws its background information actually gives an average value of 2.5 tCO2e per annum.]

Having established — hopefully correctly — the farms’ emissions, which come mainly from methane (from ovine flatulence) and nitrous oxide (from fertilizer and concentrated feed), the report moves on to consider ways of grabbing the carbon back. And guess what? The fact that the two farms have woodland extending to 80 and 67.5 hectares comes in very handy! It would appear that they are effectively drawing back 2.8 and 2.7 tCO2e per hectare of the two farms. The report’s bottom line is that by planting an additional 13 and 19 hectares of woodland, both farms would be carbon neutral (to the farm gate, at least).



We must stop here for a sharp intake of breath. Here’s a nice picture to look at whilst we count to ten…

The problem is that climate change is being turned into a desk exercise. Farmers can’t simply tally their woodlands and set them against their carbon emissions. Many of those woodlands were there long before anyone started thinking about carbon emissions, and are presumably there for a reason (even if that’s only because the land they occupy isn’t fit for anything else).

In other words, those trees are not additional in any sense. The only way they could be regarded as contributing to the global anthropogenic emissions balance is if someone were to cut them down. We should not pretend that they are “offsetting” farming emissions. It’s also worth pointing out that the report makes no significant mention of emissions reduction: it cuts straight to the chase and concentrates on the supposed offsets.

We at the Woodland Trust welcome any planting of native trees, and are comfortable with the motivation being to act against climate change. But we all need to be clear about what constitutes a valid, real attempt to reduce global GHG emissions. Action is needed. Avoid unnecessary energy consumption by seeking efficiencies, and only offset the practically unavoidable emissions that are left.

“Offsetting” these two farms through tree planting would require the creation of a total of 180 hectares of new woodland, according to the figures in the FAI2008 report. It’s surely stretching credibility to suggest that land use change on that scale is feasible. Even if it were, there’s the awkward question of where the farming would be done: would land elsewhere be brought into production? Or would we just eat less lamb?


1 Comment»

  Strawberry surprise « wrote @

[…] alluded to the idea that “food miles” need to be treated with caution elsewhere. Here’s another example: the Co-operative Group’s annual sustainability report contains […]

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