2. Introduction and background
Climate change and the threats associated with global warming have come to be widely recognised and are becoming increasingly obvious within our environment. In 2016, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) introduced the Paris Agreement which requires countries to take measures to reduce their net greenhouse gas emissions to such an extent that limits an increase of global average temperatures to less than 2°C and preferably no more than 1.5°C on pre-industrial levels.
Scotland has responded with ambitious targets, aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2030 and become a net-zero nation by 2045. In order to ensure that these targets can be met, every sector including the farming industry will be required to implement appropriate changes to help Scotland reach net-zero by 2045. There is a general consensus that a particular focus will have to be put on the livestock sector which currently makes up 75% of total greenhouse gas emissions from Scottish agriculture (N. Lampkin et al., 2019). The Scottish livestock sector has already managed to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions over the last decades, but this was in parts achieved by a reduction in total livestock numbers, most notably within the Scottish suckler herd. Some UK-wide studies such as the recently published paper by the Committee on Climate Change on recommendations to reach net zero through land use suggest that in order to meet national emissions reduction targets, a dietary shift is required to reduce red meat consumption and the corresponding livestock numbers. However, according to studies published by WWF Scotland (Vivid Economics, 2019; N. Lampkin et al., 2019), the Scottish agricultural industry has the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 35% by 2045 to reach net zero targets without the need to compromise current production levels. This will in parts be achievable through management changes and efficiency gains within existing production systems, and farming is expected to play an important part in capturing carbon to offset other emissions.
Economic pressures, increasing input prices and a competitive market place mean that Scotland's suckler beef farmers are already working towards improving their production systems through efficiency gains, better targeting inputs, and closer control of various production variables. There is significant scope to further improve cattle systems through the use of management tools, the adoption of practical and innovative technological equipment, and a greater utilisation of readily available on-farm performance data to better drive and inform management decisions, and ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the adoption of such investments and management changes, particularly those primarily aimed at emissions reductions where the immediate financial benefits may not be obvious, can be perceived as high-risk and therefore unjustifiable, especially where these are associated with significant initial expenditure and resulting cashflow concerns due to the unique and challenging economic climate of the agricultural industry. The variable and volatile nature of the agricultural market combined with a slow pay-back period for many investments which are aimed at delivering long-term benefits can make farm business budgeting and an assessment of the feasibility of and likely return on such investments extremely difficult.
A recent report on the importance of providing suitable funding to address Scotland's declared climate emergency states that "…current land management practices, market returns and rural policy do not encourage the change in activity to reduce emissions. Whilst many of the mitigation measures available will save farmers money in the long term, the upfront costs and perceived risks are often prohibitive." (Climate Emergency Response Group, 2020).
Recognising that a wide-spread uptake of climate-friendly on-farm practices and technology will likely require government support, the Scottish Government has therefore set up the Suckler Beef Climate Group to undertake a study and propose the first of several agricultural support schemes aimed at helping farmers reach the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from their production systems through the provision of financial incentives and rewards for achieved outcomes. The scheme will focus on encouraging and recognising climate-friendly suckler beef production across Scotland with due consideration being given to the preservation of the ecosystem and the local biodiversity in line with the government's ongoing commitment to protecting the environment and native habitats as part of the Scottish biodiversity strategy.
The scheme is designed in such a way that any suckler beef farmer wishing to participate will be able to join, regardless of business structure, type, tenure security, size or location. The measures outlined in the scheme will be user-friendly to enable and encourage maximum uptake, and will highlight that reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting Scotland's environment, and improving the efficiency of suckler beef production in Scotland can – and will – work hand in hand.