We need to talk about how we reach Net Zero

In this blog, Senior Land Use Policy Officer, Andrew Midgley discusses how the way that Scotland uses land will need to change if we are to reach Net Zero and why we all need to be talking about it.

In Scotland, we have a target to reach ‘Net Zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2045. We will have achieved this when all the emissions from things like transport and heating our homes are equal to the amount of greenhouse gases being removed from the atmosphere through things like planting trees and peatland restoration.

Reaching ‘Net Zero’ is essential but getting there by 2045 is going to be very difficult and require everyone working together. The Climate Change Committee (CCC), the expert group that advises the Scottish Government, says that it is possible, but they have pointed to some really big changes that are required. As you might expect, these include changes to the way that we travel and heat our homes, but they also include large changes in the way that we use our land.

In this blog I look at this issue of how the way that we use our land will need to change.

The CCC has pointed to the need to increase the proportion of Scotland that is covered in woodland, and it has said that we need to restore large areas of peatland which are currently damaged and releasing carbon into the atmosphere. But because we have a fixed amount of land, we can’t have more of some land uses without having less of others and the Committee has talked about having to put approximately 20% of Scotland’s agricultural land to another use.

This is really challenging and has big implications for land managers and for nature.

The Scottish Government has indicated it wants to increase rates of woodland creation and peatland restoration but hasn’t really set out how this will affect the farming industry and land management sector. It talks about wanting a Just Transition for farming without really being clear what that means. In September the Just Transition Commission published a briefing saying that there needs to be much greater clarity about what achieving the Scottish Government’s Net Zero and nature restoration commitments means for this sector.

RSPB Scotland wants to see a much more open and informed discussion. Changes are required and there will be both positive and negative impacts as a result. The trick will be to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives, but we can only do that if we have proper discussion to find the best way forward.

This issue has been recognised at the UK level by the likes of the Green Alliance and the Royal Society and the RSPB has sought to add to this by undertaking our own Land Use Scenarios Project.

In this project we modelled different pathways to Net Zero and looked at the impact on greenhouse gas emissions, habitat for birds, and food and timber supply. Our aim was to better understand the synergies and trade-offs associated with some different possible pathways to Net Zero.

The first results are being published in a paper later today by the journal One Earth. We found that Nature-based solutions (NbS) such as habitat creation and restoration can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and those pathways which had greater NbS ambition delivered the largest emission reductions. Overall, land use change impacts on birds were also positive, mostly because of an expansion in woodland species.

An area of blanket bog that is being restored with multiple pools and plants and some patches that are still bare peat.

Restoring Scotland's peatlands (75% of which are not in good condition) could be an important nature-based solution to the climate crisis and help us reach Net Zero. Photo by Ian Francis of blanket bog in Shetland being restored. 

However, as you might expect, as some farmland is put to a different use, so agricultural output drops, and farmland birds are negatively affected too.

This is where things get a bit tricky. There are already concerns about the loss of agricultural land to forestry at current planting rates and concerns about food security and the possibility of becoming more dependent on imports and ‘off-shoring’ our emissions. These are all things that need to be carefully considered and it is understandable that farmers, in particular, are concerned about what reaching Net Zero means for their industry.

I should emphasise here that the RSPB is not recommending a particular pathway; we did this research to better understand the impacts of different options to help inform the development of coherent policies for Net Zero whilst addressing the challenges that this throws up. What this research does highlight is some of the choices we face and their consequences and, therefore, why we need to have a much better public discussion about the future and what a Just Transition to Net Zero looks like.

We really need the Scottish Government to provide clarity about the future pathways to Net Zero and how it will deliver the required changes whilst supporting those most affected. And it needs to do so without avoiding difficult conversations.

One of those conversations is around dietary change and food system reform. The CCC thinks that we can reach Net Zero but that a change in our diets (reduced meat and dairy consumption, in line with healthy eating guidelines), and a large reduction in food waste, are part of the picture. The Scottish Government doesn’t have to agree with the Committee, but if it doesn’t agree it still needs to set out how we can reach Net Zero in other ways.

The government has been informally consulting on what a Just Transition looks like and it has established some pilot Regional Land Use Partnerships where some of these issues are being addressed. It will also be publishing the Climate Change Plan later this year, which will hopefully help us understand how the government plans to tackle the land use issue. The crucial point is that engagement on a Just Transition in land use and agriculture needs to get a bit more detailed so that we can properly discuss what it means. And we need discussions that go beyond a polarised ‘food security versus the environment’ argument that it is all too easy to fall in to, but which end up in a dead end.  

RSPB Scotland believes we need this sort of constructive debate now because we are currently looking at agricultural reform, Good Food Nation plans, biodiversity and net zero targets, changes to moorland management, land reform and the regulation of ecosystem markets. All of this is connected and covers big issues that affect the livelihoods, health and wellbeing of people across Scotland. The growing evidence base makes it clear we have to deliver urgent change quickly across many different systems if we’re to maintain a liveable climate with a functioning natural world. There is a real opportunity to come together to develop coherent policy that helps secure a sustainable future for land managers and for nature, and we are keen to play our part.

Header image: Aerial view of woodland by Kate Stevenson (rspb-images.com)