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The two ways Scotland can reach net zero

The two ways Scotland can reach net zero

Aoife Behan, director of Soil Association Scotland, says this IS a climate emergency, and there are two main ways Scotland can tackle it: food and farming.

There is much to celebrate as climate change gallops up the agenda: citizens taking to the streets; tougher targets on greenhouse gas emissions; and politicians, including our own First Minister, declaring a climate emergency.

For the first time the voices of the climate activists are being heard over those of the climate delayers. But how will we get from rhetoric to reality? I am looking forward to the plans, pledges and policies that will turn these words into action.

The Climate Change Commission (CCC) recommends a carbon net zero target for Scotland by 2045 – 2050 for the rest of the UK. It says Scotland can reach that destination more quickly because we have more land per person and a greater potential to store CO2.

No doubt there will be plenty of wrangling over who, what, how and when over the coming weeks and months. But there can be no question over when we start our journey to net zero. We need to start now. And there are two actions that we can take to make this happen: changing the way we farm and changing the way we eat.

sheeps and trees on a farmPicture: Planting trees on farms is good for farm businesses AND the environment. CREDIT: Neil Ferguson

Firstly, we need a largescale transition to green farming

Farming produces a quarter of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions, but farmers are also at the coal face of climate change. They suffer most from its weather changes, and the rapid decline of pollinating insects and healthy soil makes it more and more difficult for them to grow food.

The race to net zero must not be at the expense of nature and soil. Intensifying agriculture through technology – huge cattle sheds, producing lots of beef, with low emissions per unit, but with zero grass, trees or thought for the soil either – would damage Scotland’s nature, and could accelerate the extinction of pollinating insects that are so vital for our food future.

RISS Fast BreedersPicture: Grey sky thinking. RISS Fast Breeders L-R Rory Christie, Graham Armstrong and Charlie Russell

The research institute IDDRI published its report Ten Years for Agroecology recently, and its mathematical modelling showed that we can feed Europe by farming with nature. By ditching pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, farming more land in an integrated way (mixing trees and livestock, for example), and focussing on soil health and grassland management we could not only feed the population but increase carbon storage significantly, while protecting bees and other pollinating insects, without which there will be no food in the future.In Scotland we have more natural capital – soil, water, air, and living organisms that are so important to life – than in England. But we also have really challenging landscapes for farming. This means we must think of innovative ways to produce our food while also addressing our current environmental challenges. We need to consider what is grown where, and why, and how we can support our food producers to produce food in a way that will tackle the climate emergency not contribute to it.  We know from the work we do with farmers that planting trees on farms, restoring peatland, and putting them at the forefront of developing solutions that are right for them, are all ways to protect nature and store more carbon. 

Farmers know what works for their farms, and many of the best ideas in farming come from farmers themselves. We believe many have nature’s best interests at heart, and offering farmers support to get their innovative and sustainable ideas off the ground, as we do through the Rural Innovation Support Service, is already leading to outcomes that are bringing benefits for their businesses and the environment.

Secondly, let’s think more about what we eat

We cannot avoid this conversation any longer. We need to start looking at how we eat. Building our diets around more plants is vital to tackling climate change. But we can still enjoy our steak. ‘Less but better’ is a sound approach. Let’s really start thinking about how our food is produced. What value does it bring to our own diets? Is it healthy and minimally processed? What value does it bring to our farmers? Are they being paid fairly for the work they put into producing our food? And finally, what value does it bring to our environment? Is it produced in a way that helps nature to flourish rather than decline?

children with a healthy school mealPicture: Pupils in East Ayrshire get a healthy lunch via our Food for Life Scotland programme

We think the public sector should be leading the way on diets. The public plate feeds some of the most vulnerable people in society, in our hospitals, schools, care homes, and prisons. It is uniquely placed to set the tone of the nation’s relationship with its food by creating environments where it is normal, easy, and enjoyable for everyone to eat well.

It’s so important that our politicians step up the plate. But we all need to take responsibility for championing new climate and nature-friendly ways of living. Every time we put food in our mouth, we are making a choice, and that choice could solve our climate emergency. That seems like a pretty tasty solution to me.