Two key ‘A’s were missing from Gordon Brown’s budget. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other green campaigners rightly highlighted the absence of any measures to curb aviation’s significant and growing contribution to climate change and consequent impacts on the UK economy. Aviation currently accounts for 5.5 per cent of UK’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and has an additional climate change effect due to non-CO2 emissions at altitude.
But an even more significant sector escaped scot-free - agriculture and food - which, combined, account for 18 per cent of the UK’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Government, agriculture alone accounts for 8 per cent of greenhouse gases, and is the single largest UK source of methane and nitrous oxide.
Agriculture’s total per cent contribution is likely to be much higher, as only the on-farm agricultural activities have been included, not indirect emissions from the use of farm inputs, such as nitrogen fertiliser. Manufacturing nitrogen fertiliser is the biggest single energy use in agriculture, taking up 37 per cent of all energy used. For every 1 kilogram of fertiliser produced, nearly 7 kilograms of carbon dioxide are produced. Fertilisers are the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions from agriculture and the single largest source of nitrous oxide emissions globally - nitrous oxide is 300 more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Brown fooled by biofuels
The Chancellor extended the lower duty on biofuels produced from industrial agricultural crops such as oilseed rape, sugar beet and wheat until 2010. Producing petrol and diesel substitutes from crop plants seems superficially to be an environmentally beneficial measure. However, the main biofuel crops promoted and the methods used to grow them are heavily dependent on the continued use of fossil fuels, particularly in the form of nitrogen fertiliser. Nor are they realistic, cost effective means to reduce use of fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions. The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) calculated that Europe would need to plant more than 70 per cent of its total arable land with biofuel crops to increase the amount of biofuel currently used in road transport by just 10 per cent. A Defra study compared various measures for cutting CO2 emissions. Biodiesel was the least cost-effective measure, delivering cuts of just 5kg for every £1 spent. In comparison, fitting homes with more efficient condensing boilers reduced CO2 emissions by 35kg for every £1 spent, and insulating household lofts was 100 times more effective, delivering CO2 cuts of 500kg for every £1 spent.
Notes for Gordon:
1. Organic farming atypically uses 30% less energy per unit for food produced.
2. Organic farming doesn’t use artificial nitrogen fertiliser.
3. A recently completed 25-year survey by the National Soil Resources Institute found that UK soils are losing carbon ‘on an enormous scale’ - 13 million tonnes annually, which is almost as much as the current official estimate for total greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture of 14 million tonnes (2005 data). In contrast, studies from the US, show that organically managed soils increase soil carbon by 15-28 per cent and can build up carbon in the soil (due to greater organic matter levels) at 80 kilograms per year.
4. Organic farming may still be a small part of the overall agriculture and food sector at present, but it is the fastest growing area - achieving a growth in sales of 30 per cent last year to total £1.6 billion.