25 Years of Gove

This morning PM Theresa May, supported by Environment Secretary Michael Gove, released the government’s much-anticipated 25 Year Environment Plan.

The 25YEP is something that Mr Gove was quick to insist upon after his assignment to the role of Environment Secretary. Now, I’ll confess, I was not all too chuffed when that appointment was announced, as up to that point Mr Gove didn’t really have any track record of being an environmentalist, apart from being a publicly acknowledged climate-skeptic.

But I’m not too proud to confess that I have been very pleasantly surprised by Michael Gove’s first few months in the post – from taking unprecedentedly firm action on Neonicotinoids, to committing to the concept of paying farmers for the delivery of public services. And now with the *first* (*there will be many revisions) release of the 25YEP, he seems to be doing good.

I also appreciate the nod in the 25YEP to the fact that 25 years extends well beyond one political term – noting that it’s because we’re tackling issues that are far larger than a 5-year turnaround period. One could presume that Mr Gove intends the 25YEP to be a bit of a legacy piece for him – and personally I’m a bit torn between remembering everyone else who’s had a significant hand in this movement, and remembering how relatively limp his predecessors have been on environmental progress.

So what does 25YEP say?

From a blast through the 151-page document, the 25YEP is promising a pretty new (and needed) approach to environmental management (dare I say ‘stewardship’?) in the coming years.

The theme of ‘public money for public services’ is continued throughout – this argument being that, under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) (the way agriculture works throughout the EU, just about), there’s this thing called ‘Basic Farm Payments’. BFP means that a Farmer will receive money just for being a farmer, based solely on the amount of land that they own. It likely leads to cheaper commodities (like milk being cheaper than water in recent years), but is fundamentally flawed in that the tax-paying public end up paying farmers lots of money, regardless of how productive the farm is. At it’s most extreme levels of social injustice, BFP gives tonnes of money to owners of vast areas of the uplands who provide next to nothing in food commodities. The land in question will be legally classified as ‘farmland’, but the legal requirements for that are just that a very small number of sheep have to occasionally be present for grazing. (I’ll direct you to Mark Avery and Guy Shrubsole for more on this debate). But in short, you can probably see why this jars with people who think they should see some kind of public service or return on their tax money.

To some legitimate farmers who do actually farm but, through geography and circumstance, still depend on BFP for the majority of their income, the idea of losing BFP is pretty scary. However, there is the promise that something better will be replacing it – and for people like the hill farmers of England and Wales who already take a strong stewardship role in maintaining their landscape, not just their flocks, they might actually finally find those services financially valued.

Something that the 25YEP is clearly quite proud of is the fact that it’s the ‘world’s first’ to utilise a Natural  Capital approach to environmental policy.

Natural Capital is, basically, putting a financial value on Nature. This has long been experimented with by environmentalists, and also pretty divisively debated between purists and pragmatists. In it’s crudest interpretation, Natural Capital states that everything has a value that is translatable into a financial figure. That ‘Puts a price on Nature’, it commodities beauty and intrinsic value, and opens our great Gaia up to thorough a ravaging by heartless capitalists. Some purist conservationists loathe and fear Natural Capital, as it is such a bastardisation of something that to them is sacred and priceless.

However, in practice it’s not that bad. We environmentalists have to come to terms with the fact that we are trying to change a fundamentally capitally-driven society, and at the same time I’m sure wouldn’t object ourselves for a little more financial recognition for all our efforts to save the world.

So in the case of Natural Capital in the 25YEP, it really just comes down to the fact that we need to value more the actual services that the environment provides us (like natural flood risk management, storing carbon, cleaning water, providing better food for longer, even looking nice) and particularly the nation’s farmers deserve to be remunerated for being the managers and maintainers of those services.

As the example it gives in the 25YEP:
“Our farms provide so much more than just food. They provide recreational activities to an estimated value of £200m for farms and nearly £300m a year for woods. Furthermore, the way farmland and woodland filter the air is valued at £182m and £794m per annum.
Which references UK Natural Capital: ecosystem accounts for freshwater, farmland and woodland

The way in which these figures such as these are calculated is usually with a degree of subjectivity, and it’s not to say “Ok, if we invest in £794m of air filters we could do away with woodlands”, but the point there is that the *value* of these environments is presented in a ways that fits with the rest of the economy (and the minds of economically-driven people).

“What’s your favourite bit of 25YEP Andy?”
I hear you ask.

Something that’s come as a genuine and pleasant surprise to me, given that it’s not been talked about much if at all (by Gove) in the run-up to the release, is the inclusion of Peatlands! Yay Peatlands! We really need to focus a lot of effort on peatland restoration ASAP, which is what I’ll be pushing for with the release of my upcoming film, The Carbon Farmer.

So overall, 25YEP is looking pretty good, in my opinion. It’s by no means complete, as there’s still a lot to work out in terms of how we’ll actually implement the ideas laid out in the plan, and fulfil these bold new ambitions, but the important thing is that ambition itself. The brazen ambition to do something radically new and different – and built of a pretty sound consensus of what environmentalists, the general public and farmers all agree would be a good way to go – is just what I was hoping to see.

Yay for Peatlands!

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The Carbon Farmer

I’m working on something new, and it’s called The Carbon Farmer. Take a look:

So I guess a valid question is ‘Why am I making a film about bog?’

Peat moorland is something we’ve got a lot of in the UK. There’s over 400,000 Hectares of peatland in England and Wales, and it covers over 70% of Scotland’s land mass, so it’s a big, boggy deal.

However, we’ve not looked after our peat well for the last few hundred years, in a variety of ways. Around the industrial revolution, particularly as northern towns like Manchester and Sheffield started pumping out a whole lot of coal smoke, the bogs of the Pennines started to acidify (peat bogs are naturally acidic places, but this was too much for them), and the vegetation that forms the foundation of life on the peatland basically died.

Peat Degradation in the Peak District

Some seriously degraded peat in the South Pennines, taken from the shoot for High Water Common Ground – which was actually the inspiration for The Carbon Farmer.

Elsewhere in the UK the peat’s been even more actively damaged from some retrospectively poor decisions a few decades ago. Around the 50’s-60’s it was observed that there was all this land ‘going to waste’ in the uplands – a whole load of bog not doing nothin’ for nobody. So the official government decision back then was to cut big drains into the peat in an attempt to dry the landscape and make some viable agricultural land out of if.  *Unfortunately* that didn’t go to plan; the land has never become really viable agricultural land, even for grazing sheep. All that’s happened is the drains have got bigger, and the bog has stopped functioning.

A 'grip' (drain) cut into peat a few decades ago.

But really, why’s that all a bad thing? Who cares about bogs for their intrinsic bog-ness?

Honestly, many of us won’t realise it, but bogs do a lot for most of us. Bogs naturally filter impurities from water that we like to drink (which degradation messes up, cos if you’ve got bare peat then rainwater washes that peat away and then utilities companies have to spend lots on filtering it out). Bogs provide recreation space for walkers and habitat for ground-nesting birds, wading birds, predatory birds, (loads of birds, really), supports insect communities on which many birds feed, and loads of other wildlife (which degradation messes up, as who wants to nest or wade or graze on a big swathe of rubbish bare peat?).
And my personal favourite – healthy bogs naturally ‘clean’ air and actively sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Healthy peat bogs are carbon sinks.
But of course, degradation colossally messes that up too, as when peat becomes degraded it swaps from carbon-sink to carbon-source. Yep, once the water level drops more than just a bit below the surface, millennia of built-up peat starts oxidising and actively releasing CO2 and methane into the atmosphere.

Because peat is so easy to overlook as a bog (as I’ve said, it’s only 70% of Scotland and a huge chunk of the rest of the UK); because peat is not a uniform depth across the UK and is in different states of degradation; because it’s a little bit challenging to put a number on how much damage is done by degraded peat, it’s never actually been calculated or included in national (or global) carbon budgets before.

Until now. Recent research, commissioned by DEFRA and supported by the IUCN NCUK Peatland Programme, has put the first figure on Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions from UK Peatlands, and here it is:

UK Peatlands currently release 16 Million tonnes of CO2(equivalent) every year.
It’s “(equivalennt)” CO2 because it’s a mixture of Greenhouse Gasses, and Methane has a more potent effect on climate change than CO2, but less of it is emitted in a molecular sense.

I’ll put that figure into some context. For the last few years the UK government has been committing to reducing our annual GHG emissions, and the current figure is that the UK is currently cutting emissions by a total of 32 Million tonnes of CO2(equivalent) per year.
So to rephrase; half of our national annual efforts in reducing our emissions are completely undone by the degraded state of our peatlands. We’re seriously taking one step back for every two steps forwards. In my personal opinion, any campaign that’s targeting cutting emissions from any major source – such as the energy sector, which is still the biggest emitter – is seriously lacking if it’s not simultaneously addressing peatland restoration. And I will respectfully note that no current big campaigns are because we’ve never taken this into account before, but a new revelation like this should provide the opportunity to revise some strategies. There are always opportunities to do better, and peatland restoration promises serious bang-for-buck in the Carbon game.

The energy sector is still the largest emitter, but we are addressing that.

It’s not that we could create some hugely powerful carbon-sequestration system if we restored health to UK peatlands, (I mean, that is what we’d create through peatland restoration, but the rate is sequestration is very very very slow). Rather, what we will make an impact by doing is halting a substantial emitter that we have the power to completely shut down – and in so doing effectively double our annual efforts in reducing GHG emissions from all sources.

Arguments against combatting climate change through peatland restoration:

  • “It’ll take attention off the energy sector and other GHG sources – particularly if you create anything resembling a carbon-sink”.
    Right. When Henry told Liza there was a hole in his bucket, was she concerned that if Henry fixed the hole he’d stop collecting water? Did she tell him not to get distracted form the task at hand, and to compensate for the hole by putting more water in? No, everyone on the farm agreed that the best thing to do was to fix the hole, then they could all carry on with their lives.
    I know we’ve had some big-business emissions-apathy to overcome in the past, but we’ve worked damn hard to overcome that and gain momentum on sustainability, climate action and emissions reductions. Reducing emissions from all sources will still be unquestionably important, and frankly we’ve done well up until now at reducing emissions from the energy sector by increasing efficiency – but that’s a finite transition. We need to find a new way of reducing national emissions soon, because the only way the energy sector could become much more emissions-free is if we were to start investing in renewables more. Say………….
  • “It’s traditional management that’s been practised for generations.”
    Let’s dig into that statement; are we saying that “being a farming family in this area, primarily rearing sheep (or surviving through other methods)” is traditional, or is it “Actively destroying healthy peat” is traditional? – Because those things are not the same, nor are they to be confused. The core of this issue is that most people can carry on doing what’s good for them and what they identify with if we can just get this peat-health thing right – and odds are that they could be mutually supportive with a bit of practice.
    But if you’re just that much of a conservative that tradition-for-tradition’s-sake is all the discussion I’m going to get from you, then I’ll have to bring up the other traditions like slavery, recreational opium, pillaging and hedonism that have (by and large) fallen out of fashion, despite decades of practice.

There are other arguments surrounding peat and moorland management, but I’m not going to go into them – in part that’s because, rather like peat emissions used to be, they contain blurry bits. They’re also volatile issues that tend to polarise a debate, and are their own entities that I’m not going to make this project a part of. The Carbon Farmer is very much a ‘common-ground’ project, and the fact is that there isn’t anyone out there saying “Peat degradation is a good thing” – from any perspective. That’s what we agree on, we’re happy to do so, so that’s what we’ll work on.

So what’s the plan?

We have before us a time of great potential change for environmental management in the UK, looming towards us in the form of Brexit. It’s true that, for a long time now, EU regulations have been the highest level of environmental protection available in the UK, but there’s now good reason to hope that we might be able to actually make things even better. Secretary for the Environment Michael Gove has been making some very promising noises since taking office about “Managing land for public benefit” – and there’s a great swell of support for that notion from all relevant communities (which, just to be clear, is basically everyone – as what greater public benefit is there that combatting climate change?). Of particular note, the agricultural community is very open to the idea of managing land for greater public benefit – they’re just waiting to be given the means to do so and to still manage viable farms.

Proof-of-concept artwork for The Carbon Farmer, in production.

The Carbon Farmer is being produced to present the concept of facilitating peat restoration through agricultural subsidies to the general public, the agricultural community, NGOs and UK parliaments, in the hopes that we can keep this focussed as a priority over the next couple of years of policy revisions.
To do so, at time of writing I’m working with the IUCN Peatland Programme, Scottish Forum on Natural Capital and Moors For The Future, and I’m establishing collaborations with a number of other organisations to bring this project – and this future – to life.