Commerce often gets a bad name from environmentalists like myself, but it is important to understand how it functions. Its business is selling things and the more it sells the more income this generates. If what is being sold is fingernail painting, gardening services or book keeping, where there is little environmental impact, fine. If what is being sold are gas guzzling sports utility vehicles (SUVs), large power boats, tropical hardwoods, fossil fuels and holidays in the sun, increased sales are bad news for the planet. From the sales person’s point of view, more is better; from the planet’s perspective more is usually bad.
In the same way that you cannot remove the “wild” from a tiger, you cannot remove the “profit motive” from the entrepreneur.
Benefits from commerce and capitalism
Why we tolerate the destructiveness of capitalism is that it is a “natural” system that has been practiced by our ancestors for tens of thousands of years and is good at linking people’s “wants” with “providers”, via Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”. If someone needs an item, this need is usually supplied by someone often unknown to the potential buyer. Countries that tried to do away with this system ended up with massive inefficiencies coupled with severe corruption.
The challenge for environmentalists and governments is to have a capitalist system that provides what consumers want but without trashing the planet in the process. The capitalist system is very good at year on year improvement in technologies and innovating new and more efficient technologies. The more efficient our technologies the less CO2 emissions there will be. This aspect is of benefit to us all; environmentalists, capitalists and the planet all stand to benefit.
Where the problem with capitalism arises is when commercial people are involved in deciding changes that impact on the environment. If the government is looking to minimise waste, this is counter to companies’ own aims for increased sales. The company representatives therefore propose policies that promote systems that re-manufacture rather than reuse. Such a policy is unlikely to have the lowest carbon footprint, but the pressure from industry and commerce is likely to rule out lower carbon footprint alternatives.
Life cycle analyses
In the 80’s and 90’s, life cycle analyses, where carbon footprints of a range of options were compared, seemed the answer to these debates. Having personally read many of these, one could anticipate the result before opening the report. With glass bottles for example, if written by the glass bottle industry, it came out in favour of recycling. If Greenpeace or FOE compiled the report, reuse was preferred. Even supposedly independent consultants could engineer the assumptions to meet their clients wishes for a favourable outcome. Since I was not party to the assumptions, I cannot categorically accuse people of acting in this way, but after 40 years of reading these reports I no longer trust any that are written or funded by commercial companies.
Who has the knowledge and is un-biased
Since government action is required to develop future strategies to save the planet, who do they bring to the discussion table? Civil servants, while undoubtedly clever, have little knowledge of commerce, industry and markets. Those in industry have the detailed knowledge but have their own agendas. They also have lobbyists and the money to pay for often considerable amounts of effort and time required to develop policy. Academics have an overview but may not have the detailed knowledge held by those in industry. Environmental representatives have little money and are usually too few in numbers to make an impact. So commerce ends up driving policies. This is the reason that this website does not allow commerce to contribute policy articles.
Recognition of these limitations
Once these limitations and biases have been recognised, the government should ensure that commerce is given less prominence in deciding strategy. There are many people who have been in industries who both know their business but recognise their bias. These people need to be searched for and put on strategy committees. Only then will policies to balance the practicalities of commerce align with the survival of the planet.
While commerce in general is too large a subject for this website, the primary industries of Farming, Fishing and Forestry all have a place to contribute to reducing our carbon emissions. The summaries below point a way for these industries to contribute to Scotland’s net zero commitments by 2045.
Farming 2045; How can NE Scotland’s farmers deliver their share of GHG emission reduction by 2045?
Roger Polson, Farmer, Knock Farm, Aberdeenshire, Prof Pete Smith, University of Aberdeen, and Bill Slee, ex James Hutton, give their views on how farming can contribute to Scotland’s net zero ambitions, at an ACA climate cafe, 5/9/23.
The first speaker in this fascinating trilogy of talks was Roger Polson, farmer of 540 hectares (ha) of land, on the side of Knock Hill, north Aberdeenshire. A mixed farm, with cattle and sheep, arable and forestry, on Grade 2 to 4 land, was farmed traditionally in the 90s. The farm has a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), rough grazing, 12 km of hedges and 30 km of dykes. Inorganic fertilisers were used, but a study of nutrient input and output revealed that only 20% of the nitrogen applied became part of the grain and animals produced. The rest was lost, much as watercourse pollution.
Conversion to organic
In 2006 it was decided to run the farm organically. The farm perimeter was double fenced, their suckler herd of cattle was used to produce their own home reared stock, and barley for the distilling industry and feed was converted to organic. Beans, peas and buckwheat were grown as well as biomass for energy production. Output from the farm reduced as yields and stock numbers decreased, but profitability increased as legumes provided the nitrogen and the organic beef and grain fetched higher prices.
In 2009, the concept of carbon footprints became topical. The carbon footprint of the farm of 921 tonne (t) of carbon dioxide (CO2) was compensated to some extent by 480 t CO2 sequestration by forestry, a net imbalance of 441 t CO2. In the following 15 years, the planted trees grew to sequester 1100 t of CO2 per annum. At the last count, the carbon footprint of 1050 t CO2 was countered by the forestry sequestering 1400 t of CO2.
Role for cattle
Roger feels that livestock has always been part of the nutrient cycle in mixed farming, and should continue to play their part, despite the animals’ high methane output. We must move away from hydrocarbon fuels to renewables, but not necessarily remove cattle from the farming system. Farming needs to be treated as a whole and the public taught about farming life cycles. Bureaucrats, in turn, must reduce their tick boxes and look for a more holistic outcome.
Prof Pete Smith
The second speaker, Prof Pete Smith, University of Aberdeen, said global agriculture contributed to a third of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions world-wide. Their reduction therefore has a major role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In Scotland, 70 % of GHG emissions is from food production and 30% in its processing, packing and distribution. Scotland has been criticised by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) for its poor rate of decrease in emissions to date. A 31% reduction is required by 2045 to meet our GHG commitments.
Reducing CO2 emissions
To achieve these targets, we must reduce our inorganic nitrogen fertiliser use, by going organic and growing legumes to fertilise the soil. We can increase the organic matter in the soil by moving to regenerative agriculture, through adding crop residues, ploughing less and moving to permanent pasture. With permanent pasture however, it is near saturation with soil carbon, so there is not a huge potential for increasing its organic content. Reduced cultivations can reduce carbon emissions, and better use of slurry and farmyard manure (FYM) can reduce the need for inorganic fertilisers.
There are chemicals which can be added to animal feed to reduce methane production from ruminants. These can reduce methane production by up to 30%.
However, the main way of reducing GHG emissions is to reduce ruminant livestock numbers. Cattle are worst offenders, with sheep being next. Non-ruminants like pigs and chickens, produce significantly less GHG, but the population moving to a vegetarian or vegan diet gives the lowest emissions.
In changing to organic production, encouraging biodiversity with hedges, trees and wetlands is important too. This is all part of a sustainable farming system.
Government failure to act
The Scottish government has been criticised by the CCC for not doing enough to educate the public on diet choice and reducing our consumption of meat. We Scots must reduce our meat consumption by 28% by 2035 if we are to meet our targets. The industry must therefore reduce livestock numbers, but in the form of a just transition.
The third speaker Bill Slee, an agricultural economist, previously with the James Hutton Institute, explained that the views expressed in his talk were his own, and did not represent the Institute. He felt that the farming sector was constrained by tradition where landlords grew trees while farmers grew food. This mindset has to change. A just transition is required, so that farmers in disadvantaged sectors do not lose out.
Farmers require a nudge to set them on a course of lowering their carbon footprints. We need a debate as to whether agriculture is a special case regarding CO2 emissions, or whether it should be treated like any other industry. Farms are asset rich, but low income. Farmers can therefore sell off assets to stay solvent, which is neither good for them nor the industry. We need to consider the international aspect of farming. If government support funding favours a reduction in livestock in the UK, this may simply draw in imports of meat from overseas.
Policy changes required
What is required is a policy change for Scotland, away from the traditional free market economy to a more cooperative approach. Scotland has a history of strong cooperatives, so is ripe for such an approach. We need to tax carbon emissions, but in a way that is holistic, and relates to actual practice. A border tax on carbon is required to protect Scottish farmers from imports from other countries. Incentives, such as encouraging less use of inorganic fertilisers, should be put in place. Policies should be multilateral, so that they mesh with policies in Europe and the rest of the world.
In Scotland there are large areas of unused rough grazing which could easily be forested, if the incentives and inducements are right. The Welsh approach is to require farmers to plant trees if they want any state support.
In many arable areas, on good land that is relatively low in organic matter, inter-farm trading of carbon credits could be used to transfer income from good farming areas to farms on poorer land. Whether carbon trading from other industries to farming should be allowed is another matter and probably not a good idea.
Farmers resistance to planting trees
While Scottish farmers overall do not like putting their land into trees, a significant number of farmers plant and use trees for shelter for cattle. Planting of trees has many benefits, from flood prevention to river shading to cool rivers for salmon. Stacking of such benefits should be encouraged by subsidy or trading schemes. A state led system is required to avoid malpractices such as the purchase of land by “Green Lairds”, to the detriment of local communities. Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS) could be involved in such overarching schemes.
As Nicholas Stern said, carbon dioxide is the greatest externality the world has ever seen, so must be addressed. We must therefore reduce our emissions. We should move to more permanent pasture, raise the organic matter in organic-matter-depleted land, plant more trees, develop suitable policy support systems, and develop new carbon trading systems.
Contributors to the Q&A session mentioned the Dimbleby report and the forthcoming DEFRA land use strategy soon to be published by government for England and Wales. Bill Slee commented on the importance of monitor farms in Scotland for both following government strategy and investigating and communicating the possible associated consequences. Meat reduction must be part of future farming practice.
Meat substitutes can be grown in the lab, but it may be better to change our diets to simply eat less meat. Vertical farming has been seen as the future, but it has very high energy costs which may limit its use. Roger felt that people should still be able to eat meat and that in a mixed farming situation animals provide fertility to the land.
Bill saw timber as not only good at sequestration of CO2, but also important in structural timber production, which not only provided a low carbon structural material but also locks up carbon for millennia.
Roger believed in short rotations for his farm, which included barley, peas, beans, grass and clover, and more recently buckwheat. Organic matter is now 5% and while cattle numbers are reduced due to grass yields falling, this was more than compensated for by £300 per head supplement for organic beef. Use of trees as shelter for animals is a useful system for exposed areas. Seaweed additives in feed, to reduce methane production, worked initially but then lost their effectiveness.
Roger suggested meat eating was reducing naturally, even without government action. There is a need for promotion to encourage lower meat diets for farming and rural communities, as well as education on the changes required by global warming. There needs to be a move to less processed foods, less salt use and foods with lower sugar contents.