Can anyone stop climate change?

Perhaps the delegates at COP26 are asking all the wrong questions

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October 25, 2021

I watched a lot of superhero movies when I was a kid. Spiderman was the best. I wasn’t cool and could relate to Peter Parker. Those TV superheroes saved the world every Saturday morning — usually from a stray meteorite or from a grinning criminal mastermind. Of course, in real life the threat to the world is man-made climate change, and us destroying ecosystems.

Where are our superheroes? You and I don’t make laws or trade policies or regulate the extraction of fossil fuels, or set the rules on engines or flights, or whether soy or palm oil can be shipped to the UK from destroyed rainforests. It takes gatherings like COP26 to make the big changes, gatherings where our brightest and best (hopefully) are sent to negotiate targets or binding commitments to minimise fossil fuel usage or stop trashing ecosystems.

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We are sending Boris Johnson to represent us in this vital juncture in human history. It’s like being in grave danger and needing Spiderman to rescue you, and Mr Bean turning up. You take one look, and know you are screwed.

It was when Boris started babbling on about “Build Back Beaver” at the Conservative Party Conference that my usually optimistic soul withered and died. There are a great many reasons for getting more nature back in the British countryside and being serious about climate change. But when politicians start using ‘rewilding’ as a Right-wing trope to mask policies that are actually making the countryside worse, then we are all in big trouble.

Our food chains are collapsing because of the mismanagement of Covid and labour shortages caused by Brexit. No problem, Build Back Beaver. 120,000 pigs to be culled and incinerated because of government mismanagement. No problem, Build Back Beaver. I have no issue with Beavers. I’m merely lamenting their being used by fuckwits.

Climate change is pretty simple. Since the industrial revolution we have released vast quantities of trapped CO2 through the burning of fossil fuels. Agriculture is complicit in the problem, but if you think my cows burps or farts are a major cause of climate change you’ve lost all sense of proportion. Our farm has been carbon audited: it turns out that we sequester far more carbon than we release, and they measured everything down to the food I buy for the sheepdogs. Since then, we have planted close to 20,000 saplings and radically improved our soil carbon levels in our pastures.

Our farm isn’t typical, or perfect, but it shows what can be done. UK agriculture has significant problems. But 90% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions are not agricultural: 27% are estimated to be from the transport sector, 21% from energy supply, 17% from business, 15% from the residential sector and 10% from agriculture. So if COP26 overly focuses on meat-bashing, and fake food, then you should smell a rat.

Even when we look closely at agriculture in the UK it turns out that about 60% of the problem is associated with growing crops. This won’t surprise anyone who watched Clarkson’s Farm. In some plant crop systems, the ratio of fossil fuels used in a fertiliser to the amount of food energy created is sometimes as disastrous as 10:1.

The other 40% of agricultural emissions are associated with livestock — largely thanks to the massive numbers of intensively indoor-raised livestock eating human foodstuffs such as grain or corn. But if cattle graze on green (and permanently unploughed) pastures, with a healthy number of trees and hedgerows in the mix, and if those pastures are rested for long periods so plants in the soil optimise the downward flow of carbon through their roots, and (crucially) they aren’t fed grain, then it is entirely possible for the farms to sequester more carbon than they release. Such farming may result in fewer cows, and more expensive meat, but it can be done.

If we really want to solve the problems of British food and farming then we have to get real and engage with the issues properly. But agricultural illiteracy seems to be the norm among our political class. Some of them think that you can copy the American agricultural and food model and provide token bits of wilderness and wildlife around the edges, and all will be fine.

What we actually need is thoughtful reform of our whole model of food production so farming is more mixed (including livestock and cover crops), more rotational, and with landscape design which is sensitive to the habitats and processes that British flora and fauna need. We need to gradually regulate out of existence some of the worst fossil-fuel-reliant forms of farming and raise the cost of fossil fuels in agriculture. We need to grapple with the power of the cartel of supermarkets. We need to rebuild local food systems, such as local abattoirs and food markets.

There is no such thing as an ideal global diet, Britain has a temperate climate and is brilliant at growing grass and grazing livestock. We can also change our diets to eat more British fruit and vegetables from local small-scale horticulture, as this has a small land-use and is super productive. But when we do these tricky but essential things, we then need to protect a more progressive British system from being undercut by more ecologically destructive systems overseas.

Keeping the ecological footprint of our food as British as possible is almost certainly a good idea. It is not a choice between farming or nature, but how we marry the two. To do that we need brilliant thoughtful farmers and inspired local food systems. No one at COP26 knows anything about all this, so don’t be surprised if their solutions are wrong. Sustainable farming can play a massive role in the solutions, but isn’t even on the COP26 agenda.

This summer, Matterdale, where we farm, looked surprisingly like Tuscany. Brown fields under a burning sun. Sheep and cattle panting beneath our old oak trees, flicking their ears to clear the flies. For a month or so we found we couldn’t work through the heat of the day; our sheepdogs and sheep were so hot they wouldn’t move, so we jumped in the lake instead or had forty winks in the shade. We worked earlier, gathering the fell at 6am, and later to get the work done. Heat sounds romantic in a cold wet northern place, but if the future is hotter and drier then our farming will need to change. We have had fairly regular spells of drought in recent years and have built twenty ponds around the farm, so we always have water where we need it.

We have already experienced record-breaking rainfall events. The beautiful 18th century bridge that crumbled and was swept away from Pooley Bridge in 2015 was a very visible sign that we are already subject to pressures that our infrastructure can’t cope with. Our landscapes need to hold and store vastly more water in wetlands and ponds (and probably man-made infrastructures) to slow the flow from causing horrific damage downstream. Perhaps the best way to store lots of this water is in our agricultural soils, simply by making those soils healthy and aerated through better soil management.

The politicians and activists at COP26 haven’t a clue about this. So they latch instead on to batshit dietary choices and technological solutions such as carbon capture and synthetic farm-free food. They like solutions that can be delivered by people like them, from the top down, imposed through their own lofty power and influence. Bill Gates will fix it, or Monsanto, or Prince William or David Attenborough. But the real world doesn’t really work like that; the people at ground level aren’t interested in being passive victims of a massive corporate power grab of their land and their food supply.

We need to believe in farmers more, to help them to provide the complex mix of things we really need. The bad news is that the great and the good who attend events like COP26 seem almost completely disinterested in bottom-up changes, lost in a world of virtuous slogans and simplistic ideas. Or, worse, believe in solutions that are already alienating rural and farming people and creating a culture war.

Environmentalism has gone mainstream. That ought to be good news. But in reality, it is being mugged, used, abused and exploited wherever you look. The sad thing is that we have never needed good leadership so badly — yet all we get is a sinister clown blurting out ‘Bring Back Beaver’.