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Climate Change Reflections at the NFUS Conference 2020

Mike Robinson, co-chair of the Farming for 1.5°C Inquiry spoke at the NFUS Conference in Glasgow earlier this year (2020). Here are some of his words from his speech.

Climate change is one of the biggest issues of our generation, and it isn’t about to go away. The science has been around a long time. One of the first climate scientists was a Scottish crofter from Perthshire called James Croll, born in 1821, who first established a theory about the predictability of glacial epochs based on the eccentric orbit of the earth around the sun, the tilt and wobble of the earth, and importantly (and uniquely at the time) the importance of feedback mechanisms like polar ice reflecting heat into space, and oceanic circulation. Since that time many scientists have refined and added to these ideas, but we have known for over a century that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere causes global temperatures to rise.

When the FUS was founded in 1913 atmospheric CO2 was 301parts per million (ppm). By the time it became the NFUS in 1947 atmospheric CO2 had hit a new high in human experience of 310 ppm. By the 1960s this was over 320ppm, by 1995 it had steadily increased to over 360ppm, and today it sits at over 410ppm and continues to rise by about 3ppm/year. The cause of this incessant increase and indeed acceleration of atmospheric CO2 has been caused by fossil fuel emissions. And in response, predictably, the global average temperature has gone up.

The international community has been developing ever stronger commitments in response. Even in the US, where Trump will withdraw from the Paris agreement in November, many states, cities and organisations have separately signed the Paris agreement, and will continue to pursue low carbon trajectories. Ultimately, the future of international trade, legislation and taxation are going to be increasingly determined by climate change.

This issue has gone way beyond whether one or two individuals believe in it or not – the international community are responding, national governments are taking action, every local authority, university and public agency is responding. Our shareholders, our investors, our stakeholders, our unions, our suppliers and perhaps most importantly of all, our customers are responding. If we want to be able to continue to run businesses and activities into the future we need to respond too.

The UK and Scottish governments have been at the forefront of that global response and recently made significant commitments to cutting emissions with targets to achieving a Net Zero society by 2050 and 2045 respectively. Whilst there have been emissions reductions since the 2008 and 2009 Climate Acts, much of the progress to date has been down to the energy sector. Some emissions have been exported (arguably to higher emitting overseas producers – clearly not something we want to repeat) and there have been in-roads in other areas of industry.

However the two sectors which have seen the smallest declines in emissions in recent years have been transport and agriculture and as a result both have increasingly found themselves in the political spotlight and subject to far more scrutiny and criticism. Because of a slightly one-dimensional discussion about cutting back on meat, agriculture has often seen itself as a victim of the popular narrative and has taken a fairly entrenched and defensive stance. However, this is not ultimately helpful to anyone. Agriculture has a huge and vital role to play in helping the whole of society achieve net zero. In fact, more than that, it can’t happen without farmers and landowners getting on board. This is even more true in Scotland, due to importance of agriculture.

Farmers and land managers have many potential gains to contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation – everything from types of crops, to fuel use, to nitrogen use, to soil tillage, to woodland planting, to peat management and soil restoration and many other things besides.   Where these will save farmers money we need to enact them immediately. It is vital too that we assess the whole farm impact on emissions, as the current method of accounting is disadvantageous to farmers. This is the sort of measure that our Farming for a 1.5°C Inquiry will ensure is heard in the corridors of power and academia. Our role, as a committee of farmers, scientists, economists, and campaigners, is to present a suite of options for agriculture to deliver on its contribution to national targets, but to try to make sure this is done in the fairest and supported way possible. It will result in asks for the farming community, but it will also have asks for government to support the farming community in that delivery.

As a society, as climate awareness grows, we will inevitably see some reductions in meat and dairy, through consumer choices, but quality of meat production is a significant factor in emissions. Scotland with its reputation for high quality production, means this probably won’t be as drastic as some farmers fear.It does however require change; arguably transformative change. But agriculture is not being singled out. Quite the opposite, every sector has to play a role. And every sector requires some level of transformation. Agriculture though has one of the most critical roles to play in achieving our national targets. If it chooses to, farmers can embrace this challenge, stop acting like victims of climate change and instead stand up and become its champions. For the sake of the climate I hope they do.

Mike Robinson

Chief Executive

Royal Scottish Geographical Society

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