RSPB Scotland Director Anne McCall responds to the Committee on Climate Change report released today. 

Land use is key to responding to the nature and climate emergencies

The role of land use – both as a source of greenhouse gas emissions and cause of wildlife declines and as a key part of the solution – is receiving increasing attention. This week saw the publication of two important UK reports setting out recommendations for how we use our land and with particular implications for land use in Scotland.

On Tuesday, the Woodland Trust published its Emergency Tree Plan for the UK.  Using our land to grow trees is widely agreed as an essential response to tackling climate change as well as delivering a wide range of other benefits. These include timber production, creating space for recreation, providing homes for wildlife and helping to reduce flood risk. As we look ahead, in one form or another, our landscapes are likely to be more wooded. But how many trees, of what kind and where are important questions we need to answer carefully. The Woodland Trust’s Plan includes a number of key recommendations we support. It proposes we look after the trees we already have, especially our native woodlands, and combine quantity and quality targets for new tree cover to ensure it stores carbon, supports the recovery of wildlife and benefits people. We say ‘here, here’ to that.

The Plan also calls for combining ‘forestry and woodland strategies alongside agriculture in an overall land-use strategy that enables new land for trees as a priority’. Scotland is ahead of the game on this one already having a Land Use Strategy. As yet, it remains high level in its vision and objectives but the Scottish Government has committed recently to the creation of Regional Partnerships and the production of Regional Land Use Frameworks to enable us to make better and more strategic choices about how we use land. Ensuring we balance the need for land for more trees alongside agriculture, nature conservation and renewable energy, amongst other things, is vital.

Today, the arguably more important of the two reports – Land Use: Policies for a Net Zero UK - was published by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC). The Committee exists to advise the UK and devolved Governments and Parliaments on tackling and preparing for climate change. Its recommendations last year resulted in the Scottish Government setting a target to reach net zero emissions of greenhouse gases by 2045. This new report builds on earlier ones identifying the critically important role that land use will have to play if this target is to be met.

The Committee’s report is clear that business as usual is not an option and achieving net zero will not be possible without changes in how we use land currently. We welcome some of the ambition and the recommendations set out in the report although believe the Committee could have made the case to go further and faster overall. Specifically, its call for an emissions reductions target for the land use sector of 64% by 2050 is well below where we need to be. In broad terms though, proposals for achieving low carbon farming practices and increasing woodland cover and agro-forestry are positive. Proposals for increasing rates of peatland restoration and preventing damage to peatlands by burning and extraction for horticulture, and reducing consumption of the most carbon-intensive foods, are also vital. As highlighted above, how many trees, of what kind and where they are planted is important to get right. For example, planting commercial conifer forests on land that is already of high nature value, supporting birds such as curlew and lapwing, is not the right approach.  The report is unhelpfully silent on these questions and, in general, fails to give much consideration overall to the needs of nature in striving for net zero or to recognise the full contribution it can make. This is disappointing. Nature based solutions to climate change such as restoring peatlands and saltmarsh, and creating native woodlands and wetlands should be at the heart of what we do in the coming years and we need to be more ambitious.

The Committee’s recommendation for a market mechanism - such as a trading scheme or auctioned contracts - to encourage afforestation is also of concern as it is likely to incentivise the further large scale roll out of forestry plantations focussed on a few, non-native tree species. Equally, is the recommendation to expand the growing of energy crops by 23,000 ha each year. This could well prove to be a poor choice if it takes place on land that could otherwise be producing food or on land that is currently of high nature value and would be damaged by such crops or where planting would itself lead to greenhouse gas emissions. Proposals for BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage) also seem misguided given this technology is in its infancy and not yet commercially viable.

The Committee makes overall UK recommendations and proposes specific targets but has not considered how these might be achieved or delivered in each of the four UK countries nor the implications of doing so. What happens next is for Scotland to decide. Most, if not all, of the areas covered in the report are already on the political, policy and public agendas here and Scotland is, in some cases, making progress. On others, such as increasing uptake of low carbon farming practices, restoring degraded peatlands or tackling food waste, there is still an awful lot to be done. With an Agriculture Bill currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament, revisions to our Climate Change Plan underway and the next steps in implementing the Land Use Strategy being taken forward, we have a number of opportunities to not only respond to the Committee’s recommendations but to go further.

This year will also see two big events in Scotland. First, in Edinburgh in April, a meeting of delegates from national, regional and sub-regional governments on biodiversity ahead of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity in Kunming, China, in October.  Then, in November in Glasgow, the next major Conference of the Parties on Climate Change. Scotland has the opportunity to take the lead on both domestic and global stages and must show how forward thinking decisions and choices on land use can help to tackle both the climate and nature emergencies.