Climate Change: reflecting on a rocky year

As this year’s Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) winds down, it’s an important time to reflect on two things: what the evidence is telling us, and what we’re doing about it. While many world leaders were quick to commend the coming together of 196 governments to agree on how to implement the Paris 2015 Agreement, many campaigners, world leaders, and scientists have voiced their concerns.

The UNFCCC COP24, in Katowice, Poland came to and end on 14 December to a mixed reception from world leaders and campaigners. ©


The Conferences of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change have taken place each year since the international treaty was signed in 1992. In short, it’s a framework for international cooperation to combat climate change and understand and respond to its impacts. The 2015 Paris Agreement is the most significant step in the UNFCCC process, seeking to accelerate and intensify actions and investments towards a more sustainable future. Countries pledged to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celcius from pre-industrial times, and pursue 1.5 degrees.

This year’s special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average was stark in its warning: we aren’t close, and we need to have halved emissions by 2030. Such a dire warning from the most widely recognised expert community on climate change added a strong sense of urgency to COP24 in Poland the past few weeks. Experts were quick to translate and summarise that science.

Delay, hesitation, and an unwillingness to take responsibility means we now have to reduce emissions by 45% in 12 years – and our food system is a key area to tackle. What’s more, we now have the opportunity and responsibility in Scotland to do so. But, as the most recent Progress Report to Parliament in Scotland highlighted, “Low-carbon heat, transport, agriculture and forestry sector policies need to improve in order to hit 2032 emissions targets”.

What does it mean for wildlife and biodiversity?

The IPCC summarises that:

On land, impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems, including species loss and extinction, are projected to be lower at 1.5°C of global warming compared to 2°C. Limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C is projected to lower the impacts on terrestrial, freshwater and coastal ecosystems and to retain more of their services to humans. (IPCC, p.10)

Effects from climate change are already well under way around the world. Not only human impacts, but impacts on wildlife, from migratory patterns to population changes. As the climate changes, our ecosystems are placed under greater stress, and ecosystem resilience against change has declined with increased human activity. In our forests, for example, the dominance of a single non-native species, sitka spruce, with an extremely low genetic diversity from introduced specimens, means our forests and woodlands are far less resilient to climate-related issues like drought.

The main threats to biodiversity continue to be overexploitation of species, agriculture, and land conversion and fragmentation, according to a 2018 analysis of IUCN Red List data in Nature, but climate change is increasingly having negative impacts on biodiversity too. For instance, the impacts on coral reefs have already been ‘catastrophic’ and ‘unprecedented’, according to a 2016 article in Nature.

Attempts to mitigate climate change, and adapt to existing changes, are increasingly turning to natural solutions. We’ve known for a long time that vegetation and soils are key sinks of carbon – they lock carbon away to prevent its greenhouse effect in the atmosphere. In Scotland, for example, peatlands alone contain carbon deposits equivalent to 140-160 years of the country’s total emissions. Their protection is central – degrading peatlands can emit vast quantities of this stored carbon, and it can take centuries for peatland bogs to naturally recover.

Scotland’s carbon-rich soils contain over 3,000 megatons of carbon, with peat and peaty soils containing over 1600 Mt of this. Peatlands have been shown to be significant in regulating the global climate since at least the early Holocene. © Norrie Russell


What does this mean for Scotland?

Scotland’s Climate Change Bill is currently making its way through parliament with the commitment to reduce emissions by 90% by 2050. It sounds high, but it’s not enough. The IPCC report is clear:

In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range). (IPCC, p.14)

Scotland can and must aim for net-zero emissions by 2050. Achieving anything less risks dramatically worse outcomes according to the IPCC. Scotland has been first among calls for transitioning to a sustainable economy and food system, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon showed strong ambitions at COP24, but we aren’t yet living up to this rhetoric. Not least, commentators have been quick to point out the ongoing support for North Sea oil exploration and extraction.

Agriculture contributes over a quarter of Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions and reaching net-zero overall requires radical changes in how we support farms and produce food – balancing the inherent emissions in agriculture with practices that offset them, like peatland restoration and afforestation. Many farmers and crofters already do a lot for the environment, and some practices, like agroforestry, can provide important sinks for absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These kinds of public goods aren’t recognised or rewarded enough – and losing them isn’t recognised by the food market. Moreover, reducing agriculture’s impact on the climate and environment, and achieving the net-zero target is already the ambition of fifty organisations, academics, and farming networks.

“Quite clearly then the current system of public support for farming is indefensible for the environment, for taxpayers, for food consumers and even for most farmers. A radical revision is long overdue”

Bateman and Balmford, 2018, article in Land Use Policy

Some change is already occurring. As a team of academics for the RISE Foundation point out there “have been periods of quite large cuts in pig numbers in the…UK, and in sheep numbers in the UK.  Red meat consumption is already on a downward trend”, which helps lower carbon emissions from the food system. Elsewhere, evidence shows that consumers are increasingly choosing more sustainable food products and paying greater attention to issues like plastic packaging.

A public good is normally defined as non-excludable and non-rivalrous. It’s a service that can’t be reduced through its consumption, like learning something, nor kept from others by being available to one, like the air we breathe. Public goods disperse through society. Our enjoyment of and reliance on them don’t interfere with anyone else’s. The environment provides such ‘goods’ – our basic life support systems – from our air and water, soils and flood defence, to landscapes and birdsong. But the ability to provide these systems and services diminishes with poor management, our failure to recognise them, and our inability to account for them. We’ve become more aware than ever before of our dependency on such processes, and yet the scale at which we threaten them is equally great. Looking at nature for its public goods is not to reduce it to something that simply provides for us, but to better understand our position in these complex processes; how we rely on their outputs, and how we contribute to their inputs.

In practice, ‘pure’ public goods are rare – most public goods are technically, to some extent, rivalrous or excludable, but to do so is normally very costly. Alternatively, their use or enjoyment, such as the aesthetic value of landscapes, can lead to congestion or overuse effects, limiting the availability of the public good. Public goods are grounded in economic theory, and since the 1990s have emerged as what then-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, described as ‘the missing term in the equation’ for a number of international problems. Since then, they’ve provided a way for policymakers, academics, and institutions to capture services of public value whose demand cannot be sufficiently provided by market mechanisms. Phenomena from landscapes to air quality can have high or indispensable public value, but limited market value; capturing these as public goods helps us understand their individual and collective challenges.

Viewing land management practices through a public goods lens offers us a way of perceiving the environment, ecosystems, and nature generally, not just for their intrinsic value, but also in terms of what we gain from their preservation, restoration, and careful management.

Read more here.

We also agree with the National Farmers Union of Scotland when it argues we mustn’t reduce Scotland’s emissions by simply importing more food from elsewhere – as far as climate change is concerned, carbon emissions matter regardless of where they’re produced. That means we need to tackle those emissions here, now.

So, what can be done?

As we increasingly recognise the complex links between biodiversity and climate change, our response also needs to account for complexity. Recent IPCC reports have started spelling out expectations of biodiversity impacts according to different scenarios and pathways (how much the global average temperature rises above pre-industrial levels, and when this occurs). UN conferences have increasingly paid attention to how woodlands, seas, peatlands, soils, and a host of other ecosystems both help mitigate climate change and provide resilience against it.

“We have to think broadly about the relationship between current food production and future food production. We do not want to do our grandchildren down.”

Lord Krebs Chair, Adaptation Sub-Committee of the UK Climate Change Committee to Scottish Parliament Environment Climate Change and Land Reform Committee, September 2016

This means agriculture, forestry, and land use are central questions in Scotland’s responsibility to act on climate change, and ensure our ecosystems are resilient against it. As we move to a new system of farm support after Brexit, we have to make sure we aren’t embedding the same mistakes all other again.

This means we need to move from narrow concepts of land use to land stewardship, from subsidising overexploitation to a new relationship with how we understand and make use of ecosystems and the diverse life-support services they provide, including food. Our Land Stewardship Policy aims to move us from subsidising overproduction, to subsidising these life-support systems, like climate resilience and carbon sinks. Not only do we know this is possible, but we know it’s essential.

The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is the EU’s farm subsidy system. CAP promoted food production in post-war Europe, but this came at significant financial and environmental cost. At its peak the CAP cost 73% of the EU’s budget and still accounts for 38% of total spend and provides nearly half of farm income. This provides essential funds to keep many farms afloat, but as Bateman and Balmford point out, the “bulk of its funds are paid through the Pillar 1 Basic Payment Scheme. However, because this is allocated on a per hectare basis this means that three quarters of these funds go to just one quarter of farms”. Scotland has historically benefited far less from what farmers often decry as an overly complicated system. More importantly, the subsidy system has encouraged excessive production: that means the public has subsidised over production and food waste. What’s more, because the CAP is publicly funded and subsidises private goods (food products), the public pays twice for these goods – first through taxes, and then through the cost of the goods in the store. Scottish Wildlife Trust, together with 35 environmental organisation and a host of farming networks want to see this system overhauled as we leave the EU. We want to see a system that supports farms for doing environmental good – protecting species, storing carbon, testing soils, reforesting areas, and better integrating natural processes into farming practice.

Read more here.

That means transitioning to a system of public money for public goods – rewarding those land managers, farmers, and crofters for helping in the fight against climate change, for protecting ecosystems, for providing habitat links. The great thing about this complexity is it means tackling all these parts adds up to a greater whole – they all interact with an enforce one another. This position is increasingly supported by land managers and farmers: by the CLA, a membership organisation for owners of land, property and businesses in rural England and Wales, who argue for moving the existing CAP budget into a public goods system, and by the Commercial Farmers Group who argue that public money should be “primarily directed towards the delivery of public goods”.

“We used our experience to … deliver positively, first and foremost, for nature; improving the health of our land and enhancing the health, happiness and well-being of our animals…The result is high quality food packed full of nutritional goodness.”

Lynbreck Croft, Cairngorms

Stewarding the land in this way is already happening in Scotland, in some of the most marginal agricultural areas. Lynbreck Croft is a perfect example of sustainably managing marginal land without subsidies from the CAP. The growing Scottish membership in the Nature Friendly Farming Network is also testament to this – the call to make use of the unparalleled local knowledge of many farmers and crofters to tackle environmental crises is growing. We need an accessible farm support system that recognises, facilitates, and rewards this.


Scott Leatham, Policy Specialist

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As this year’s Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP24) winds down, it’s an important time to reflect on two things: what the …

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