We can cut emissions while conserving our landscapes and ecosystems
Fighting climate change is not only about energy – it’s about how we want our landscapes to look, work and be worked
The UK’s landscapes are human landscapes, made by the way in which people have used – mostly farmed – the land. Photograph: Alamy
As an environmentalist, it’s easy to be discouraged by the slow progress in actually cutting carbon, but at least we’re starting to get serious about climate change.
The recent publication of the Centre for Alternative Technology’s (Cat) Zero Carbon Britain 2030 report, along with the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s (Decc) “2050 Pathways” analysis, outline sober, well thought through, holistic proposals for how the UK can achieve the overall cuts we need to keep climate change below 2C.
What both these reports demonstrate is that tackling climate change isn’t simply about how we power our economy, it’s just as much about how we want our landscapes to look, to work, and to be worked. The fact that the trio of landscape, ecosystems, and rural communities is finally coming into the debate over what we actually do about climate is why I’m optimistic.
Unfortunately, Zero Carbon Britain 2030, the more ambitious report, proposes changes to England’s landscapes that are greater than any change since the 1930s. In order to produce all our power at home, the report proposes to devote 85% of England’s grazing land to large-scale biomass plantations. This suggests that nearly a quarter of England would no longer be covered by the familiar pattern of meadows and pastures which defines many valued English landscapes.
Indeed, thinking about the abandonment of farmland in the interwar period probably underestimates the changes proposed. To get a sense of scale, England’s towns, cities and roads occupy over 10% of its land.
A better sense of the change might be to imagine the intimate, small-scale landscapes of the south-west or the dramatic scale of dry-stone walled uplands in the north being replaced by the more uniform landscape of northern France, which is dominated by large fields with agricultural monocultures. The very warp and weft of historic landscapes that have been defined by livestock farming for hundreds of years would disappear under bioenergy crops such as miscanthus, which can grow to nearly four metres in the UK.
Of course, landscapes have always changed, and if we do nothing, a warming climate will change our landscapes for the worse. Change can also be good, as CPRE’s work to restore hedgerows which were removed in the 1980s shows.
But my point is about more than how changes in the countryside look. England’s landscapes are human landscapes, made by the way in which people have used – mostly farmed – the land. Many of our most threatened species depend on environmentally sensitive farming, and rural communities are equally linked to the farming activities that define the character and culture of the countryside. Landscape is the lens through which we can see how the countryside is changing.
The point isn’t that we mustn’t have change – but in making changes, we should seek to conserve the good parts of Britain that we have.
Everyone should read Cat’s Zero Carbon Britain 2030 report, and they should use Decc’s energy pathways calculator to understand the scale of the challenge of decarbonisation. Some of the choices that Cat has made – being a net energy exporter instead of building a Europe-wide electricity supergrid to connect British offshore wind with imported north African solar power – make the landscape changes I outlined above inevitable.
Solar power in deserts takes thirty times less land to produce the same amount of energy as biocrops, making a solar solution sensible. CPRE doesn’t support simply exporting our energy demands – this type of project, if developed in partnership with north African nations, presents a huge opportunity for sustainable development, and shows that we have choices about cutting emissions that go hand-in-hand with conserving natural beauty.
• Dustin Benton is a senior policy officer at the Campaign to Protect Rural England