The UK Climate Risk Independent Assessment (CCRA3) Technical Reporti on page 3 makes the statement that:
It is beyond doubt that the global climate is changing due to human alterations of the composition of the atmosphere and the character of the land surface.
I was delighted to see those words “and the character of the land surface”, because although I accept that the greenhouse gas effect is real, I have long felt that politicians, media, pressure groups, environmentalists and even scientists focus almost exclusively on the effect on climate of greenhouse gases, while virtually ignoring (save to the extent that it involves reducing CO2 sinks) the reality that climate is affected by chopping down forests, by building mega-cities, and by land use change generally. The question of land use is a significant piece of the climate change jigsaw that is all too often ignored. It is also of direct relevance to environmentalism more generally, and again I feel it is largely ignored in favour of an obsession with greenhouse gases. The UN Biodiversity conferences very definitely seem to play second fiddle to climate change conferences, and are virtually ignored by the media, unlike the hullaballoo that surrounds climate change. I don’t think a day went by last year without some reference in the UK media to COP 26 in Glasgow. Who knows much if anything at all about the other COP – COP15 on Biodiversity, due to resume at Kunming, China on 25th April 2022?
Returning to CCRA3, then, how refreshing it is to read on page 17 about “non-climatic human influence on the environment (such as land use affecting habitats).” And to see a footnote on page 20 referring to “[t]otal anthropogenic emissions of 43 GtCO2 per year in 2019, including fossil fuel use, land use change and cement production.” [my emphasis].
Or how about this on page 22?
Land use is another driver affecting species. Fox et al. (2014) found in their examination of the frequency of occurrence of 673 macro‐moth species in Great Britain that species with a trailing range margin in northern Britain declined. This is consistent with climate change, but widespread species, which were predicted to be more sensitive to land use than to climate change, declined significantly in southern Britain, where the cover of urban and arable land has increased. Also, moths associated with low nitrogen and open environments declined most strongly, which is also consistent with a land‐use change explanation.
Planting trees can also present long-term risks to other habitats, both in terms of direct loss or fragmentation and indirectly by preventing the creation of larger blocks of habitat or changing the hydrology of catchments. For example, the Natural Capital Committee (2020) suggest that appropriate spatial planning is needed when tree planting in order to avoid the possible loss of other habitats and land uses, such as species rich grasslands, heathlands and peatlands, especially if they are degraded.
This, too, is refreshing to read:
The Net Zero agenda is also predicated on major land use changes, including expansion of woodland and bioenergy crops, that in appropriate locations could bring substantial benefits for soil health if also consistent with both present and future climate suitability. By contrast, if such land use changes are poorly planned and implemented then the detrimental effects could be exacerbated by ongoing climate change. A cautionary example here would be the expansion of maize cropping, which is often used for anaerobic digestors and associated reduced GHG emissions, but when planted in inappropriate locations such as steep slopes can accelerate soil erosion and loss of soil nutrients.
I mention all this because CCRA3 forms the backdrop to the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2022ii presented to Parliament pursuant to Section 56 of the Climate Change Act 2008. Given the awareness of land use issues within CCRA3, I looked forward eagerly to seeing how this played out in the report presented to Parliament. Unfortunately, I was to be disappointed. A quick search of the 49 pages revealed just 6 or 7 references to “land use”, as follows:
A further £124m of new money for the Nature for Climate Fund has been announced to enable more opportunities for farmers and landowners to support net zero through land use change.
Separately, a new Soil Structure Measuring and Monitoring Scheme is being developed to enable visual assessments to be carried out by farmers and land managers (citizen science) across all land use/soil types.
Achieving net zero by 2050 is in part dependent on the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere and reducing emissions by utilising nature-based solutions. The CCRA3 warns that losses from existing natural carbon stores would threaten this target. To avoid permanent losses the report recommends: • Spatial targeting of land use policies to match changing conditions, including consideration of climate change impacts in decisions over species choice in tree planting programmes.
Defra accepts the Advice Report’s conclusions on the importance of spatial targeting of land use policies.
Additional commitments in the plan include developing metrics that allow decision-makers to assess the realistic costs of forest to bog restoration and improving land use decision-making through the new peatland map data (due to be completed in 2024).
The report recommends beneficial actions for the next five years which include better long-term seasonal forecasts for land managers, assessment of land use options given changing water availability and land use strategies that bring climate change mitigation and adaptation together.
And that’s it.
The big unasked question
However, despite my disappointment regarding awareness of land use issues (whether globally or nationally), it is as nought compared to my frustration at the failure of those in charge to ask themselves the truly vital question – “What happens if we in the UK adopt net zero but the rest of the world doesn’t really follow us?
There seems to be an implicit assumption on the part of all those who make the nation’s big decisions, that we have no alternative but to press ahead with “net zero” because we must avoid global temperatures rising by more than 1.5C or 2C (or perhaps a bit more – take your pick). We have to go down the “net zero” route because if we don’t then we can’t control global temperatures and it will all be our fault. But what if we do all this at great financial cost, at the sacrifice of our whole way of life, and at the destruction of our energy security, only to find that it made absolutely no difference to the global climate? What then? Why is nobody in charge, or in a position to influence those in charge, asking this question? Are there no warning bells going off anywhere in Westminster following the sabotaging of COP 26 by China and India?
Risks to people and the economy from climate-related failure of the power system (Priority Risk Area 6)
There is indeed a real risk to people in, and the economy of, the UK, from the failure of the power system, as the above sub-heading (and what follows) within the report makes clear.
The Advice Report for CCRA3 describes how, as the UK becomes more dependent on electricity as our dominant energy source, people and the economy will be increasingly exposed and vulnerable to electricity system failures. BEIS recognises that risks from climate-related hazards will become more common as our dependence on electricity grows and the variability of our weather increases. As noted in the Net Zero strategy, low carbon power, mostly from intermittent renewable generation, is expected to become the predominant form of energy in 2050. It will account for approximately 50% or higher share of final energy consumption, up from 10% in 2019, as light transport vehicles and domestic heating electrify.
Bizarrely, though, the report doesn’t seem truly to recognise that the threat to energy supply comes from relying on renewables and electrifying everything in sight – rather the risk apparently comes from the climate:
The report concludes that the risks can be managed, but that ensuring the UK has a power system that is resilient to future climate impacts is now an urgent issue.
And then this:
The government acknowledges the climate risks of an increasingly renewable-based electricity system, particularly from offshore wind. Alongside working with Ofgem and National Grid ESO to manage these risks, BEIS is currently considering how to ensure flexible demand and supply is taken into account and working to decarbonise flexible firm capacity to ensure when renewable output is lower, we have secure capacity which meets our net zero ambition.
And finally there is this less than reassuring paragraph:
Current work includes: • Working to deliver a smart and flexible electricity system with Ofgem, that will underpin our electricity security and the transition to net zero in the Transitioning to a net zero energy system: smart systems and flexibility plan 2021 • Reviewing how the Capacity Market will need to align with net zero by bringing forward more low carbon capacity and better address emerging security of supply challenges. • Investigating how large-scale, long-duration electricity storage could facilitate a net zero system and its role in the efficient and cost-effective delivery of security of supply. The government accepts that the decarbonisation of transport and the associated reliance on electricity needs to be considered. An internal Climate Change Adaptation DfT strategy is currently being drafted…
Sounds like a wing and a prayer. I can’t say I’m reassured. On the contrary, I’m very concerned indeed. Some crucial jigsaw pieces seem to have been lost behind the sofa, and the people in charge are never going to see the whole picture in all its terrifying glory.