Anne Gray: Differing climate change needs must be balanced

Anne Gray, Senior Policy Officer (Land Use & Environment) at Scottish Land & Estates
Anne Gray, Senior Policy Officer (Land Use & Environment) at Scottish Land & Estates
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Climate change, and the means by which it is tackled, is an issue requiring more than an element of international cooperation. However, although many of the strategies we adopt to tackle climate change will transcend national borders, that does not mean there is no space for important decision-making at a local level. And this often presents tough choices.

As the Scottish Parliament scrutinises the government’s draft Climate Change Plan, one thing that is becoming increasing clear is the vital role those who own and manage land have to play in reducing the worst impacts of climate change. Certain types of land management practice are the only realistic and sensible way to remove carbon from the atmosphere, whereas other business sectors and individuals can only reduce their emissions rather than reverse them.

Two areas are particularly important: growing trees and maintaining functioning peatlands. As a society we have become familiar with the idea of planting more trees as a way of offsetting the carbon dioxide produced through heating our homes and running our cars. Most of us remember something of the bit of science from school around photosynthesis and respiration. So trees and plants grow by using water, sunlight and carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere and convert them into solids such as cellulose, which form the plant’s structure. There the carbon stays until the tree dies and the solid carbon decomposes back to carbon dioxide gas. If you keep the same amount of trees, the carbon cycles between atmosphere and trees, but if you plant extra trees – woodland expansion – more carbon is removed from the atmosphere and joins the cycle.

The role peatlands have to play is less well known and understood, perhaps, but it is vital this changes, since peatlands provide the opportunity to lock carbon away indefinitely in a way that is rarely the case with trees. That is because peat, which is layers of dead plant matter, again containing carbon, is formed under waterlogged conditions. Waterlogged conditions exclude oxygen, which is a vital component of decomposition. If the peat vegetation doesn’t decompose, the carbon is not released but is stored layer upon layer upon layer, and will stay there until the watery seal is compromised. Scotland is wet, cool and has topography that lets water lie, so we have a lot of peat and so great potential to lock away atmospheric carbon in this way.

Yet how we “do” agriculture also matters. The issue in terms of agriculture tends not to be the amount of carbon dioxide released by farming practice but the amount of methane (largely from the stomachs of cows and sheep) and nitrous oxide (from the application of synthetic fertiliser to crops) that is released. Methane and nitrous oxide are both greenhouse gases and both are considerably more potent than carbon dioxide. Methane has 25 times and nitrous oxide 298 times the warming effect of carbon dioxide. A happy coincidence, however, is that it is usually the case that anything done to make farming systems more efficient usually results in lower greenhouse gas emissions, so there is plenty of incentive for farmers to adopt climate-friendly practices.

What we do with land, therefore, contributes to how well Scotland reduces the risk of climate change – but making changes to how land is managed can be controversial. We have seen dissatisfaction from Mountaineering Scotland to woodland expansion proposals. Mountaineers are fearful that the character of Scotland’s uplands will be changed by the very sizable targets the Scottish Government has set. Many people who own land, and live and work in the countryside also have concerns about change. If we are to grow more trees, they will have to be grown on land currently used for something else, such as sheep farming or sporting activity. That has implications for jobs, landscape, species mixes and the wider rural economy. It is not easy to square this circle. We must be sensitive to the needs and wants of everyone involved. Scottish Land & Estates believes Scotland’s Land Use Strategy has a role to play. It is designed to take account of all the things we wish to see rural land deliver, from food and drink to wood products, tourism and recreation, carbon storage and flood management. It attempts to listen to all interests and to find a coherent and collaborative way forward. We cannot deliver absolutely everything that everyone wants from Scotland’s land. Choices will sometimes have to be made. What we need, though, is a process that lets us rationalise and balance the options that will also allow us to make a national contribution to an international issue.

Anne Gray, Senior Policy Officer (Land Use & Environment) at Scottish Land & Estates