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Climate Change and Scottish Agriculture: Changing Our Ways

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Climate Change: Scottish Agriculture's Contribution

What is global climate change and what causes it?

Our planet is surrounded by a blanket of gases which keep the surface of the earth warm enough to sustain life. But this blanket is getting thicker, trapping in too much heat, resulting in what's known as the Greenhouse Effect. This global phenomenon is happening because we are releasing greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas for energy in our homes and for our transport, and because large areas of rainforest - which absorb carbon dioxide - are being destroyed. As a result, our climate is changing.

Is Scottish Agriculture contributing to climate change?

Yes. While Scotland only contributes 0.2% of global emissions, individually, we emit around twice the global average per person. Scotland's agriculture sector contributed almost 12% of total Scottish greenhouse gas emissions in 2003 - slightly more than the business sector. The main greenhouse gases emitted by the agriculture sector are nitrous oxide and methane, with only a small amount of carbon dioxide emitted as a result of energy use. Agriculture is the largest source of methane emissions in Scotland (73%), due to emissions from livestock and a small amount from the handling of livestock wastes. Agriculture is also responsible for most of Scotland's nitrous oxide emissions (83%), which arise from the use of organic and inorganic fertilisers and emissions from grazing animals.

Total emissions from Scottish agriculture fell by 15% between 1990 and 2003. Within this, agricultural methane emissions fell by 8% due to a decline in cattle and sheep numbers, while the sector's nitrous oxide emissions fell by 17%, mainly as a result of a reduction in fertiliser application and leaching.

Impacts of Climate Change on Scottish Agriculture

Will climate change affect Scottish Agriculture?

Climate change is one of the most serious threats facing our planet. While it's the world's poor in the developing world who will suffer the worst impacts and who are most vulnerable, Scotland is already feeling the effects.

Over the last 40 years temperatures have increased in every season and in all parts of Scotland since 1961, and in the north and west rainfall has increased by almost 60% in winter months 1. In the future it is expected that Scotland will have warmer, wetter winters; hotter, drier summers; less snowfall; and an increased risk of flooding. We can expect more extreme weather and sea-level rises of up to 600mm threatening coastal areas.

Possible impacts on Scottish agriculture include:

  • longer growing seasons;
  • waterlogged fields;
  • increased irrigation and drainage needs;
  • increased soil erosion;
  • changes in the quality or composition of crops and grasslands;
  • diversification of crops grown;
  • increased range of native and alien pests and plant and animal diseases;
  • increased grazing opportunities in winter but increased risk of heat stress in livestock in summer; and
  • damage to agricultural buildings and increased insurance premiums.

Some changes to the climate are unavoidable. Even if we stopped releasing greenhouse gases today, much of the change in climate over the next 30 to 40 years is already determined by past and present emissions. We must, therefore, do everything we can to adapt to the expected changes and limit future changes by reducing unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions.

What are the Main Challenges for Scottish Agriculture?

  • Flooding and drought

More intensive rainfall is expected as a result of climate change, increasing runoff and the risk of erosion. Rainfall patterns might also become more variable, resulting in greater probabilities of floods and droughts. The combination of higher temperatures and changed rainfall patterns has implications for water balances and organic content of soils, with consequences for irrigation demand and use. Sea level rise threatens the loss of coastal, estuary and floodplain agricultural land, erosion of land and salinisation of ground water.

  • Pests and diseases

Predicted climate changes are likely to increase the range of many native pests and plant and animal diseases in the UK, while decreasing the range of others. Surveillance and eradication procedures for some alien pests ( e.g. the Colorado beetle) and plant and animal diseases are likely to become increasingly important. There will also be an increase in the rate of evolution of weeds, which could lead to some types of herbicide tolerance becoming more common.

  • Changes in natural habitats and wildlife

Some species of wildlife and plants, both beneficial ones and pests, will be affected by climate change in different ways. Some species will be able to adapt, and farmers and other land managers may be able to assist adaptation through improved habitats or by controlling populations. The farming community can also help preserve important natural habitats and species by management practices (making use of agri-environment schemes), for example by developing connections or 'corridors' between different areas of natural habitat, or by changing grazing patterns.

Tackling Climate Change in Scotland

What role can Scottish Agriculture play in dealing with climate change?

Scotland has a responsibility to do its bit to help tackle climate change. Individuals, households, businesses, community groups, the voluntary sector, and local and central government all need to join in the effort. In short, we're all part of the problem and must all be part of the solution. Together we can make a difference.

Like all sectors of society, the agriculture sector has a responsibility to reduce its contribution to climate change. This need not be a major obstacle nor impede economic growth in the sector; rather there are many opportunities to be had. Scotland as a whole has been successful in breaking the link between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions, with the Scottish economy growing by 29% between 1990 and 2003, while our greenhouse gas emissions fell by 14% (when we subtract those emissions soaked up by the trees and soils that make up Scotland's carbon sink). The same opportunity for breaking the link between economic activity and emissions exists within each sector of our society, including agriculture.

What are the main benefits of tackling climate change?

A number of opportunities for resource efficiency and commercial development are presented by tackling climate change, including those arising from a longer growing season and greater scope for diversification.

Resource efficiency

  • more efficient use of fertilisers

The use of nitrogen-based fertilisers is a major source of nitrous oxide emissions. Nitrous oxide is 310 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. More efficient use of such fertilisers - through targeting - would lower harmful emissions AND save farmers money. It would also reduce emissions associated with the production and transportation of fertilisers. Research by the Executive indicates that nitrous oxide emissions as a result of fertiliser use could decrease by 20% by 2020 2, with appropriate land management policies.

  • improved livestock feed efficiency

Methane is an important greenhouse gas and the majority of Scottish methane emissions come from the agriculture sector. Most methane comes from emissions directly from animals, with some of the remainder coming from animal waste. The Rowett Research Institute is developing an anti-methane feed ingredient which has the potential to improve feed efficiency by some 10% as well as significantly reduce methane emissions.

  • increased transport effectiveness to reduce 'food miles'

In recent decades there has been an increase in food related transport for freight and shopping which is a factor in the rising level of traffic on Scotland's roads. 'Food miles' are a source of greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change and are part of a complex network of environmental, social and economic factors. Their impact on climate change can be reduced by more effective use of transport, including the use of sustainable biofuels and safe and fuel efficient driving by road vehicle users.

  • more efficient use of energy within farm businesses

Carbon dioxide is emitted as a result of energy use in farm businesses. More efficient use of this energy can help reduce costs as well as benefiting the environment. The Carbon Trust customer centre and website provide free advice to farmers, and others in business, to help them improve their energy efficiency and save money (call 0800 085 2005 or visit www.thecarbontrust.co.uk). To help them get started, farmers can call now to order their free Agriculture and Horticulture starter pack (PAC012).

The Energy Saving Trust's Business Adviser network offer a similar range of products for households and smaller businesses (call 0845 458 5040 or visit www.est.org.uk).

Business development

  • new market opportunities for energy crops and non-food crops

There are a number of opportunities for the agriculture sector to develop commercially at the same time as helping to tackle climate change. In addition to food, crops can be used as energy crops or as a source of renewable raw materials to replace other fossil fuel based products. Sustainably managed farm woodlands, animal waste and biofuel energy crops can provide alternative streams of income for farmers. There are three schemes which provide aid to farmers for growing energy crops:

  • EU aid on industrial crops, including energy crops, grown under contract on set-aside land.
  • A flat rate supplement of 45 Euros (£30)/ha can be claimed for any crops, except sugar beet, grown under contract for energy purposes.
  • Forestry Commission Scotland provides £1,000 per hectare to establish short rotation coppice, willow or poplar as an energy crop.

Woodfuel may also provide a market for timber from undermanaged farm woodlands and a successful pilot scheme,

'Developing Farm Woodland Energy', is being run by Forestry Commission Scotland. The Executive will develop a Biomass Action Plan by the end of 2006.

Environmental protection and improvement

  • sustainable soil management and preservation of Scotland's carbon sink

Scottish soils are much richer in carbon than those across much of the rest of the UK and so practices which preserve or enhance this carbon sink are important. Between 1990 and 2003 the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere by Scotland's carbon sink (including forestry) grew by 20% and in 2003 it removed 16% of Scottish greenhouse gas emissions. Land use practices which help to preserve soil carbon include conservation tillage, cover crops, crop rotation, incorporation of crop residue and organic fertiliser. Enhancing carbon storage in soils has other benefits, including improved soil and water quality, decreased nutrient loss, reduced soil erosion, increased water-holding capacity and crop yields.
On the other hand, activities which may contribute to loss of carbon from soils include deforestation, intensive cultivation and drainage of wetlands and peatlands.

What is the Scottish Executive Doing to Tackle Climate Change?

The Executive published Changing Our Ways: Scotland's Climate Change Programme in March 2006. This represents a stepping up of the Executive's commitment and ambition to tackle climate change. It sets out the action the Executive is taking to reduce Scotland's greenhouse gas emissions and encourage appropriate adaptation to the expected impacts.

A Forward Strategy for Scottish Agriculture: Next Steps, also published in March 2006, recognises the challenges and opportunities which climate change brings to our farming sector. A stakeholder group is being established to evaluate and monitor agriculture's response to climate change through mitigation and adaptation. This information will be used to develop a comprehensive action plan to bring about further improvement.

Land Management Contracts will provide the primary vehicle for supporting land management from 2007 and will assist land managers in tackling climate change.

What Targets have been set to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

The UK has an international target (under the Kyoto agreement) to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5% by 2008-2012. It also has two more ambitious domestic goals - to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% by 2010 and to reduce them by some 60% by around 2050.

To make a fair contribution to these commitments up to 2010 we must make sure that Scottish Executive policies save a fair share of total savings from equivalent policies across the rest of the UK. This amount of carbon is called the Scottish Share.

The Executive has set an ambitious target in Scotland's Climate Change Programme to do even more by exceeding the Scottish Share by 1 million tonnes of carbon savings.

This is the first time the Executive has identified Scotland's fair share of UK carbon savings and the first time it has set a Scottish climate change target. Together, they show the strength of Scotland's commitment to make a lasting difference to the bigger picture.

Choosing a Better Future for Scotland

How can we live within environmental limits?

The world does not have an unlimited supply of resources and people are already pushing the limits of what's available. That is why we need to reduce the amount of resources we use and look for new ways of meeting our energy needs. We can all contribute to a more sustainable future by making small changes to our lifestyles. If we don't act now to reduce emissions and prepare for the unavoidable impacts of climate change, we'll need to make even more radical changes in the future and the costs will be higher.

Can I make a difference?

Yes. We can all take steps to reduce our carbon footprint 3 and manage the resources we use in a more environmentally-friendly way. Changes in our daily lifestyle and how we operate our businesses can make a big difference and ensure Scotland does its bit to tackle climate change.

10 Steps Scottish Farmers can take to tackle climate change:

  1. Plant new woodlands - increase carbon sinks.
  2. Use on-farm wood resources as wood fuel, for fencing, barn cladding and animal bedding - decrease production and transport of off-farm resources.
  3. Plan amount and timing of applied nitrogen to match crop requirements and soil conditions - save money and reduce nitrous oxide emissions.
  4. Feed livestock partly on cereal silage instead of grass silage only - reduce methane emissions.
  5. Use bio-diesel to power farm vehicles - reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
  6. Use on-site renewables such as micro wind turbines to meet some of your farm's energy needs - reduce energy costs and carbon dioxide emissions.
  7. Explore the opportunities for diversification into new markets such as energy crops - reap the commercial benefits associated with the growing demand for low-carbon products and resources.
  8. Adapt farm systems to threats of reduced water availability in summer and waterlogging in winter, new and increased pests and diseases, and extreme weather events - protect assets.
  9. Create and positively manage wildlife corridors such as grass and water margins, and field boundaries - help vulnerable species adapt to climate change.
  10. Take the Energy Saving Trust's 'Save Your 20%' challenge by making small changes to your daily lifestyle - save money and conserve energy.