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The UK could reach its target of an 80% reduction in agricultural greenhouse gases by 2050, if farm yields are increased and natural habitats are restored. Researchers found that 18% more of the UK needs to become forested, and 700,000 extra hectares of peatland needs to be restored, to act as a carbon sink allowing Britain to hit its target.
The study, published in Nature Climate Change, is the first to calculate how much land needs to be spared in order to reach an 80% reduction in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. The target is set by UK Parliament, as part of the Climate Change Act 2008.
"Land is a source of greenhouse gases if it is used to farm fertiliser through sequestration [carbon storage]," said study author Prof Andrew Balmford, from Cambridge University. "If we increase woodland and wetland, those lands will be storing carbon in trees, photosynthesising it in reeds, and shunting it down into soils."
The results found that the UK needs to increase its forested areas from 12% of its total land, to 30%. 700,000 hectares wet peatland will need to be restored, too; that is more than four times the size of London.
It also showed that average yield needs to increase across all agriculture by an average 1.3% every year. This will allow more land to become free for forests and peatlands, and also takes into account the projected population growth in the UK.
However, these results act as an absolutely maximum. That means to say that no more peatland will be restored than the 700,000, and likewise, 1.3% increase in yield every year is an upper limit.
That is because the scientists did not take into account the potential for more food imports. That now means the UK has a target which will not increase, but could decrease in the future. That makes it a little easier to digest.
"If we are serious about saving the planet for anything more than food production then the focus has to be on increasing yields and sparing land for the climate. We need to look objectively and dispassionately at every option we have for achieving that," said Balmford.
He added: "The right incentives need to be provided to landowners to spare land. Subsidies under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy could be redirected so that landowners get paid properly for taking land out of food production and putting it into climate regulation."