Reforest farmland to cut emissions, says report

A Harvard study says land used to raise animals for meat should instead be planted with trees to help deal with the climate emergency

Looking up at blue sky through trees in a dense green forest in the Peak District, UK

It has been a positive few months for promises of tree-planting. In the run-up to the general election, all the major parties vowed to take steps to reforest Britain, with the Tories making a manifesto commitment to plant 30 million trees a year until 2024. In November, the government launched a £50 million Woodland Carbon Guarantee scheme, to encourage farmers and landowners to create more woodland to help tackle the climate emergency.

Turning farmland back into forest and woodland has a critical role to play in creating a carbon-neutral country. And a report last year highlighted how doing so could not only reduce meat eating and mop up emissions, but also produce enough of the right kind of food to keep Britain fed and healthier.

Produced by Harvard University, the study – Eating Away at Climate Change: Repurposing UK Agricultural Land to Meet Climate Goals – found that planting trees on fields currently being used for grazing and growing livestock feed crops would siphon off 12 years of carbon emissions. Planting food for human to eat, such as beans, pulses, fruit and vegetables, would mean humans could get the same amount of protein and calories without the animals.

Trees are warriors in the battle against climate change because they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen; encourage wildlife; create shade and shelter for animals and crops; and prevent flooding and erosion.

Swapping farmland for woodland would mean Britons could “eat our way” towards meeting its obligations under the Paris climate agreement, the study said. The country is not on track to meet its legally binding commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

In addition, Britain would become less dependent on imports. The country currently grows just 50 per cent of what it eats, with the rest coming from further afield, often the other side of the world, with all the carbon implications that comes with its transportation. Nor is animal-based farming any more efficient. Half of all land in the UK is used to farm animals, yet for every 100 calories fed to livestock, humans receive only 12 per cent back in the form of animal protein.

The scientists modelled two scenarios to work out the best way of combating climate change: returning all grazing and feed crop land to forest, and returning grazing land to forest but keeping fields to grow more human-centric crops. The first would remove from the atmosphere the equivalent of 12 years of harmful greenhouse gas emissions emitted at current rates; the second nine years’ worth.

Both scenarios would also help in tackling the current wildlife crisis, by restoring habitats that could be used by keystone species such as beavers, which have been successfully reintroduced to Britain over the past decade, and lynx, whose return to these shores may occur in the 2020s, if a licence application is granted.

“Repurposing portions of agricultural land for carbon dioxide removal is essential to meet the Paris Agreement,” the report concludes. “This in turn necessitates shifting from animal to plant based food production.” It adds that its scenarios could increase the chances of the UK meeting its commitments and “make a substantial contribution to aligning UK greenhouse emissions with a warming limit of 1.5C by restoring forest cover on land currently used for animal agriculture.”

Read the report

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