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Joining the dots

Carys Roberts

Through changing how we use land, government can both decarbonise and promote an inclusive economy and society

This month the independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the statutory body tasked with advising the government on how to meet its emissions targets, published an important report. In it, the Committee argues that to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the way we use land must change.

This argument is extremely welcome. Land provides us with natural resources and services that are critical to the functioning of our economy and society, from water, to soil, and space for new homes. As climate change affects population flows and requires changes in consumption patterns, how we use these resources and services will need to adapt. But different ways of using and managing land are also key to preventing catastrophic climate change. Soil and trees store carbon and other greenhouse gases, and how they break down or are used affects how much is released back into the atmosphere. The ways in which we use soil affects ecosystems and the sustainability of our food production: in parts of the UK we only have 30-40 years of soil fertility left. How we use land to produce food determines how efficiently we can live, how many perishable goods we truck around the world and if we consume the products of intensive food growing elsewhere, the ability of other countries to meet their own targets.

Due to their remit, the report focuses exclusively on emissions targets. But to focus on this single policy objective, rather than looking at land in the round, risks missing a real opportunity for a just future

It’s therefore real progress that land is being placed centrally in discussion on climate change – not just in this report, but in debates and policy in the Agriculture Bill and Environment Bill. Also welcome is the identification in the CCC report that policy has for too long afforded food production primacy over other benefits that land can produce. Land is finite: ensuring we meet climate change objectives necessitates prioritisation of the different benefits land can bring. That means we must think about land holistically, rather than through the prism of any single policy objective.

However, it’s on this very point that the Committee’s report could be deepened. Perhaps due to their remit, the report focuses exclusively on emissions targets. But to focus on this single policy objective, rather than looking at land in the round, carries the risk of generating negative consequences in other domains, and missing a real opportunity for a just future. Instead, the government should join up the dots of its policy objectives, and use the task of decarbonising our land uses to promote an inclusive economy and society.

There are multiple ways we can meet our emissions targets, and each will affect different communities and people differently. What is the economic potential of implementing this strategy for regions and nations of the UK? How can we support supply chains in areas of changed land use for viable and sustainable economic models? What is the potential for ‘green jobs’, particularly in areas that need them? And how could implementing the recommendations of the report help solve the housing crisis, through production of sustainable building materials?

Non-economic policy considerations are also at risk of being sidelined in the Committee’s report. The report recommends a shift in meat consumption from lamb and beef to pork and chicken, in order to free up land. But pork and chicken require less land precisely because they’re often farmed in industrial conditions that do not always ensure a high level of animal welfare. Predicating our emissions-reduction plan on an increase in intensive farming is unnecessary and goes against what many environmentalists – and voters – would want to see. Can the UK be more ambitious, and instead cut meat consumption further than the report suggests, eating less but higher-welfare meat?

How can we support supply chains in areas of changed land use for viable and sustainable economic models? What is the potential for ‘green jobs’, particularly in areas that need them?

Policy change will be needed to realise the Committee’s plan and to do so in a way that considers different objectives holistically. An approach that recognises public value in public spending decisions is key: not just whether a land-use is viable in private markets, but whether it should be publicly supported because it delivers shared benefits. The reform of land subsidies post-CAP will therefore be essential to delivering a lower-emission future, and indeed a shift to rewarding pro-environmental behaviour is proposed in both the CCC report and the Agriculture Bill. But reformers should also consider other kinds of benefits that could be generated. Land best-suited to storing greenhouse gases is likely to be in areas of the country in need of investment and  inward financial flows: if the money follows public value, there’s potential for simultaneous economic rebalancing. That would not be ‘subsidy’ to unviable businesses, but proper payment for a collective benefit. At Shared Assets we would argue that rather than a land-use strategy, these goals can be best achieved through a land use framework that guides the myriad decision-makers in our land system to reward public value, including but not limited to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

It is right that policy debates are turning to land and how we can use the land we have to protect against climate change. As the Committee prepares its second report in 2019, and government responds to it, they would do well to examine the social and economic opportunities offered by a green future.

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