Climate change debate comes to the boil

Much was said about climate change, as world leaders and tens of thousands of experts and others met in Paris for the latest global summit on climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gases. The circle they attempted to square was the pain targets bring for industrialised countries, while those trying to grow their economies continue to build power stations. The argument is about them catching up, while those that made the problem over hundreds of years face cuts.

If past similar events are anything to go by we will all soon be facing new and largely impractical targets for Europe. But little will really change, since this is a global problem and not one that can be solved as long as the catch-up arguments of developing countries hold sway.

As new targets are set, it’s inevitable that farming will be drawn into them. Agriculture has to play its part in delivering the changes needed, but compulsory targets must be rooted in science.

At the start of the Paris event Price Charles criticised the amount spent on agricultural subsidies around the world, suggesting these funds could be used to deliver green energy projects instead of encouraging damaging farming practices. His views came as no surprise, but were a sound-bite, not a solution. Farm subsidies in developed countries are the price of cheap food on supermarket shelves. It’s up to consumers to decide which they want, but they can’t have cheap food without supporting agriculture. Organic farming may be a beguiling solution, but it can’t meet the challenge of a growing world population. That can only be done by producing more food from the acres already in production.

More extensive farming would involve bringing extra land into production. This increases greenhouse gases, since it reduces the availability of uncultivated land that acts as a carbon sink. It also involves the removal of trees, which have a key role in absorbing carbon dioxide.

This underlines how complex the arguments are and how what seems to be the right solution can produce entirely the wrong result. Biofuels were a prime example, when the US and EU rushed into setting targets for their use in all vehicle fuels. Land was diverted from food production to grow crops for ethanol and biodiesel, driving up food prices. This was a big problem in developing countries, that could not afford the price rises. At the same time, land was ploughed up to grow crops for export to the US and elsewhere for ethanol. The result was that a policy designed to make things better only made things worse.

The leaders of the UK farm unions and COPA have been making the case for agriculture to be seen as part of the solution, rather than being treated as a problem in its own right. Methane from livestock production, fertilisers and diesel in machinery are all targets for cuts. Indeed, some radical thinking in Brussels on these ‘problems’ was only stymied by the robust approach of some MEPs who understood the difference between theory and reality. However, these threats are still coming, so agriculture must begin building its case – remembering how nitrate controls were imposed on the basis of some very thin science.

Agriculture needs to begin assembling some robust arguments, not least about the role of grassland as a sink to absorb carbon. It also needs to press the arguments about the need for affordable food, which can’t be delivered if farmers are forced into higher production costs to meet climate change targets. It also needs to explain to green groups that they can’t seek change while blocking all GM science, which elsewhere is the basis of fewer chemicals and less fuel being used for cultivation.

These are complex issues, but agriculture must fight its corner and not simply accept regulation as a result of politicians seeking to prove that 10 days of talks in Paris delivered something meaningful.

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