2017 Nuffield on Carbon: Ahead of the Debate

Carbon is a hot topic at the moment. Whether it’s transitioning to net zero for the UK or supply chains, opportunities to access carbon markets, or comparing the environmental credentials of different products, you can’t get away from the fact that we are all having to get to grips with new terminology and metrics.

Farming is unique in its ability to provide a climate solution. Farming is built on the carbon and nitrogen cycles and, as such, is part of a complex biological system where things move and change depending on seasons, inputs, markets and management. It was this acknowledgement that managing carbon on-farm can be complex which was one of the main findings of my Nuffield report back in 2017. Indeed, a key conclusion was that

“Carbon management on-farms is complex, there needs to be a multi-dimensional strategy which involves farmers, advisors, researchers and policy makers in order to achieve reduction targets. The time to act is now.”

Things have changed in the last 6 years.  We see net zero commitments from global corporations pledging to source from regenerative farms; we have supply chains which are requiring environmental metrics alongside milk, and we have an emerging market for rewarding good practice that improves carbon sequestration. Carbon is no longer something which is a niche subject; gone are the days where carbon was the subject for squeezing in for the last 5 minutes at a conference, when delegates were tempted by the pull of the bar, there are now whole conferences dedicated to farm carbon management.

The fact that we are now discussing carbon more is brilliant. However, even for a self-confessed carbon geek like myself who is never happier than when talking about carbon, alongside the increasing attention, there also seems to be increasing confusion. Conflict often ensues between discussions around the potential for farming systems to be the problem or the solution, with the detail ignored in simple sound bites which are picked up by social media. Because the uncomfortable truth is that when we are dealing with carbon, the devil is in the detail.  It is tricky to compare farming systems, as they are inherently all different, so the answer often becomes “it depends” rather than a confident and clear cut answer which can then be used for further discussions. Just because we are all now having to deal with carbon as an issue, doesn’t mean that we suddenly have a body of evidence to back up the potential impact of all of the mitigation measures that might be implemented. So there is a lag for research to catch up, especially around some of the holistic approaches where there are multiple variables.  There are some things which we can all do which will help us understand where we are as a farm business and also think about potential options we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve sequestration on our farm.

Measuring the carbon performance of your farm

The old adage of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” is certainly true of carbon accounting.

But when it comes to agriculture, measuring carbon isn’t as simple as it may first seem. Carbon accounting systems were designed to measure industrial processes; when measuring the emissions associated with a product manufactured in a factory, we are able quite simply to understand how the inputs lead to the outputs and it tends to all be neatly contained within a building. This is not the case when we use these metrics to measure farming systems.  On-farm we are trying to measure biological systems, which are impacted by climate, soil type, topography and vegetation, as well as what we as farmers are doing in terms of our management. Which can make the whole thing a little tricky! However, undaunted by this complexity, carbon metrics are an essential tool which farmers can use to not just identify climate solutions, but also to baseline the farm’s emissions and drive technological change. 

Identifying the carbon footprint of a farm business is the first vital step in being able to quantify the contribution that the farm is making to climate change. A carbon footprint calculation in its simplest form identifies the quantity and source of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emitted from the farm (the emissions) and subtracts from the emissions the carbon that is being sequestered on-farm (sequestration) to provide your carbon balance. This balance is the starting point which should then highlight areas where improvements or changes can be made to reduce emissions and improve sequestration potential.

Reducing carbon emissions in a farming business makes sense on many levels. High carbon emissions tend to be linked to high use of resources, and / or wastage, so reducing emissions also tends to reduce costs. This makes the farm more efficient and should improve profitability.  As well as the business opportunities that come from reducing emissions, farmers and landowners are in the unique position to be able to sequester carbon  in trees, hedgerows and margins and within the soil.

Before being able to reduce emissions, you need to know where the emissions are coming from. Are the largest emissions coming from livestock, soils, fuels, or fertilisers? It is vital to get a picture of your business which is made possible by carbon footprinting.

There are various tools that you can use to provide the baseline carbon footprint of your farm. Tools include the Cool Farm Tool, AgreCalc, The Farm Carbon Calculator and Trinity. All of the tools use the same baseline information, but may provide a slightly different methodology which makes comparison between tools challenging. There are also tools designed specifically for use by farmers which are bespoke to that supply chain.

Although the simple principle of completing a carbon footprint assessment is the same, there remains variation between what scope and boundaries the tools use to calculate the results. This is good to understand before you start the process of doing a carbon footprint.

Boundaries are an important factor to consider (or understand with the tool that you are using) as it makes a difference on the data that you need to collect and also the results. Put simply, boundaries refer to where you are drawing the line around what is included in your calculation and what isn’t. For example, do you want to calculate the emissions associated with one farm enterprise or the whole farm, or just what is happening with the farm gate or further afield. Making sure this is clear before you start makes the whole process easier.  This is also important if you are looking at getting to net zero – because if you are just footprinting one enterprise on-farm and only accounting for emissions, getting to net zero may be impossible.

It is also important to understand the scope of the calculations. For most supply chains, farmers are their scope 3 emissions, but on-farm there are also emissions to consider in those products that we use on the farm (for example fertiliser and feed).

Interpreting the results

So, once you have the results, deciding what to do is the interesting part. The results will be reflected as a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), but should also show you how that breaks down into the three gases (carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane).  Key areas to focus on are the management of soils, fertilisers, manures, livestock, cropping, energy and fuel. There are also numerous opportunities to reduce emissions and costs, leading to improved resilience and profitability, as well as opportunities to improve carbon sequestration and soil health, the ultimate resilient business model! Absorbing more carbon than the farm emits is a goal that all farmers could work towards and understanding the farm’s current carbon position by footprinting is the first key step.

Sequestration – our unique asset

Improving soil carbon levels in farm soils is one of the most important projects that farmers and society can engage in. There is an undisputed link between enhanced soil carbon levels and increased agronomic productivity. Soils are more resilient and better structured; they support higher levels of biological activity and require less inputs to produce outputs.  Including soil sequestration within calculators has been challenging in the past, models have only tended to focus on emissions which are more easily measured and tracked over time.  During my Nuffield, I went to visit countries where farmers were being rewarded through carbon markets for improved sequestration, and learnt more about some of the challenges of measuring and managing soil carbon across farmed landscapes. Since World Soils Day 2022 we now have a UK Soil Carbon Code, which helps to align methods for measuring soil carbon sequestration.  This is a great step forward which needs continued engagement to ensure that the methods are robust, practical and relevant.

Since 2017 we have been working on our Soil Carbon project, aimed at understanding how we can measure, manage and monitor soil carbon. It continues to be a brilliant project to work on, predominantly because of our incredible network of farmers who are showing what is possible, and continuing to innovate and prioritise soil health within their business. As well as digging thousands of holes for the project, looking at wider soil health metrics as well as carbon, we are now working to include the data within the carbon calculator, to provide a modelled assessment of carbon sequestration depending on farming practice and soil type. 

Building soil health on-farm has so many benefits both for the individual farm business and for wider ecosystem and landscape function. There are many farmers who are doing brilliant things around sustainable soil management and by sharing knowledge and information, more can be achieved.  By showcasing the positive actions farmers are taking, we can demonstrate the vast knowledge, adaptability and versatility of approach to soil management. Our farmer network continues to demonstrate their passion for soils and the benefits that maximising the quality and resilience of this biome can provide for their businesses.

Alongside soil, it is important to value our other sequestration source on-farm through how we manage our woodland, environmental areas and hedgerows. All of these contribute to our farm’s carbon account, and as such, it is important that these are considered in any calculations.

So what now?

We have made a huge amount of progress in the last six years since my Nuffield. Carbon is now mainstream. This is a positive step forward as we need to ensure that we all engage in a way which limits global temperature rise and helps halt climate breakdown. However, there still remain some challenges as carbon has become more familiar, which means that there is still more work to be done.

Carbon can still be viewed as something where agriculture is the main problem. As an industry we contribute around 11% of UK’s Greenhouse gas emissions, but 1.4% of UK carbon dioxide emissions. Farmers are already doing great things to reduce emissions which is a brilliant step forward. But it is important to remember that we can’t completely eliminate emissions associated with agriculture, we are never going to be a zero carbon industry. Providing positive examples and empowering farmers with the knowledge of what they can do along with the economic and environmental impacts of practices will help build knowledge around what is possible. Developing metrics that adequately take into account sequestration, and are not just based on emissions per tonne of output will also help to provide a more nuanced narrative which can help discussions with consumers. Focussing on soil health from a business resilience perspective will help to support soil function and bring emissions reductions as well as sequestration benefits.

As Carbon has risen up the agenda, FCT has also grown its team and I am immensely privileged to be joined by an incredible group of people who are supporting projects and farmers across the UK. This includes our Farm Net Zero project, aiming to showcase the opportunities farmers have to contribute to net zero within our industry as well as to other sectors. We are continuing to help inform and train the advisory sector (as well as the next generation of farmers) on how to manage carbon and greenhouse gas emissions and the opportunities that this brings.  All of our projects and activities allow us to learn more from our farmer network (especially through Soil Farmer of the Year), who are continuing to innovate and pioneer new approaches.

Carbon may now be mainstream, but there is still so much to do to empower our farmers to understand how to manage carbon on farm, how to measure it, implement changes and align this with business objectives in a time of increasing uncertainty.