Vicki Swales: Farming policy a field to look at in climate change plans

Whether viewed from a global or Scottish standpoint, we face twin environmental challenges '“ preventing climate change and halting the loss of wildlife.
Vicki Swales, Head of Land Use Policy, RSPB ScotlandVicki Swales, Head of Land Use Policy, RSPB Scotland
Vicki Swales, Head of Land Use Policy, RSPB Scotland

The consequences of not rising to these challenges are profound and will affect us all. Floods, droughts and rising sea levels are already with us, along with the extinction of once common ­species and loss of insects that pollinate our crops. Prospects can seem gloomy but Scotland has shown leadership in this field and has the potential to do much more.

In 2009, the Scottish Parliament approved landmark legislation to tackle climate change, setting ambitious targets to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that warm our climate. The conclusion of the Paris Agreement in 2016 limiting global temperature increases to 1.5C now means an even more ambitious response is required. To this end, the Scottish Government is bringing ­forward a new Climate Bill to align domestic targets.

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Similarly, Scotland’s Biodiversity Strategy sets out what we need to do to protect nature and stop wildlife declines by 2020. This is in line with targets agreed under the Convention on Biological Diversity in Aichi, Japan, in 2010.

So far, so good. But preventing climate change and saving nature requires action across many ­economic sectors. One stands out as having a large contribution to make, being both part of the problem and a major part of the solutions. That sector is farming.

Farming currently contributes almost a quarter of Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions. If we are to become ‘carbon-neutral’ as a nation by mid-century we need farming to cut emissions. It is not possible however to grow food on the land without producing any climate harming emissions at all. So, we need to find a way to reduce farm emissions, and match these with actions which take carbon from the atmosphere and store it in trees, soil and wetlands.

The Scottish Government’s recent Climate Change Plan requires farming to reduce emissions, but by only 9 per cent by 2032. This doesn’t go far enough, fast enough. Farmers can do more if they have support for a fair transition to carbon-neutral farming.

Measures include using fertiliser more efficiently, protecting soils so they store more carbon, planting trees in the right places, and promoting productive and profitable carbon-neutral farming – whether organic or mainstream. Reducing emissions and farming profitability need to be promoted as mutually supportive objectives. We have the potential to establish Scotland as a real leader in sustainable farming.

For wildlife, farming is both saint and sinner, able to create the conditions for nature to ­survive and thrive but also to lead to its demise. Think flower-rich field margins on the one hand and hedgerow removal on the other. Scotland still has an abundance of wildlife – including many ­species of national and international important – and many of these depend on farmland. But many species such as wading birds and butterflies are in decline and ­climate change is adding further pressure.

Policy is a key influence on the day-to-day business decisions made by farmers and crofters. As part of the EU, it is the Common Agricultural Policy that currently determines what payments farmers in Scotland receive and for what. Without this framework, it will be for the Scottish Government to decide how to use ­public money to support the farming sector. RSPB Scotland wants to see farmers and crofters supported and rewarded for taking action to help nature on their land. We need to see the Scottish Government bringing forward its ideas for future farming policy now.

If we leave the EU and lose access to other funding and mechanisms that benefit the environment, even greater responsibility will fall on the Scottish Government to tackle climate change and halt the loss of wildlife. The obligation to do so is as much a moral one – if the interests of future generations are to be met – as it is tied in to international agreements and treaties. Our government has shown leadership to date on the world stage and must do so again. Uncertainties created by Brexit must not get in the way of the Scottish Government bringing forward a strong Climate Change Bill and developing farming policy that tackles the big environmental challenges of our day.

Vicki Swales, head of land use ­policy, RSPB Scotland.