It will be hard for anyone to have read the thousands of pages that the Government published on its Powering Up Britain day (30 March, 2023), or what was previously known as Green Day, in detail already.
But if you were being cynical, there is perhaps not a great need to do so as most of the ‘announcements’ had previously been made and most of the ‘new’ stuff was promises of consultations and reviews.
The day certainly produced an avalanche of new reports focused on how the Government intends to deliver on its climate change and nature recovery commitments.
The two documents with arguably the most immediate relevance to farmers and landowners are the Nature Markets Framework and Net Zero Growth Plan.
The former sets out the Government’s vision for scaling up private investment in nature recovery and sustainable farming. The latter focuses on the pathway to reduced levels of greenhouse emissions and improved energy security.
Much of the contents of the Net Zero report in relation to agriculture is familiar. It talks about how schemes like the Farming Investment Fund and Sustainable Farming Initiative are being used to help decarbonise agriculture.
However, one of the newer points is a promise of greater support – likely to come in the form of grant funding – for farmers to calculate and reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions through carbon audits.
This would be welcome given a Strutt & Parker/CLA survey carried out in Summer 2022 showed that only 23% of respondents had carried out a carbon audit during the previous three years, despite the benefits of doing so.
The Government has said it believes one of the reasons for low uptake of carbon audits is that there is inconsistency in the results of the different carbon tools available. By 2024 it intends to ‘develop a harmonised approach for measuring carbon emissions from farms, helping unlock new financial opportunities through carbon markets.’
‘We also anticipate entry of high efficacy methane suppressing products to the UK market from 2025 and will explore the role of industry and government to maximise uptake of such products for suitable cattle farm systems at pace, through a phased approach,’ it added.
The Nature Markets Report seeks to address the question of how to attract more private investment into nature recovery projects. It sets out principles for how the Government expects new and developing nature markets to grow, so that they are fair, effective and accessible.
It highlights work it has started with the British Standards Institution (BSI) to develop a range of high-quality, transparent nature investment standards.
This will build on the success of existing standards such as the Woodland Carbon Code (WCC) and Peatland Code (PC) which investors trust as they have a structured framework, backed up by government, with verification carried out by third parties. Other nature markets, although having significant potential, are for many untapped, as they are not yet regulated and complex to navigate.
The Nature Markets Report also talks about the development of a Woodland Water Code by the Forestry Commission, which would generate new income for landowners delivering water-related benefits i.e. flood mitigation and water quality.
The Green Finance Institute has also been commissioned to launch an online toolkit this summer, which will help farmers identify, navigate and access private sector investment to pay for nature positive outcomes.
The report also sets out the different stacking rules within the different nature markets currently at play i.e. Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), nutrient neutrality, woodland carbon and peatland carbon. Although this isn’t really news, it provides a useful summary and reminder of the interaction between the different markets.
Other headlines of interest to the rural sector from the array of documents which were released include signs that the development of renewable energy projects is likely to get easier for landowners, with a streamlined planning process announced (albeit not for onshore solar). The Government also announced a short consultation on the compensation of communities impacted by the deployment of an electricity network to connect these with the grid.
Moving on to property, the Government unveiled a new ‘Great British insulation scheme’ which will apply to about 300,000 homes. But what about the rest?
There is disappointment that most of the £6.3bn that the government pledged to spend on domestic energy efficiency in its 2019 manifesto still has not been allocated. There is strong evidence that energy efficiency improvements will make large contributions to emissions reductions with costs less than $20US per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent saved.
Just under 60,000 heat pumps were installed last year, which is a tenth of the target of 600,000 a year by 2028. As we have previously reported, the House of Lords Built Environment Committee has described the level of take-up of the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, which subsidises replacing fossil fuel heating systems with a heat pump or biomass boiler, as ‘disappointingly’ low and that the scheme is failing to deliver.
Overall, the reaction to the announcements has been very muted and that’s probably because the background to Green Day was bleak.
Most of the Government’s official advisers, including the Climate Change Committee, the National Infrastructure Commission and Chris Skidmore MP in his net zero review have all restated that Britain is veering even further off its environmental targets.
Earlier in March, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that, ‘Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health (very high confidence). There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all (very high confidence). The choices and actions implemented in this decade will have impacts now and for thousands of years (high confidence).’
It is worth restating, again, what Lord Deben, the chair of the Climate Change Committee, said (again) when the Environmental Improvement Plan was published in January. The UK needs to move from producing plans to actually delivering them.