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Chris Huhne: The era of cheap energy is over

The era of cheap, abundant energy is over
So said Chris Huhne last week as the Department for the Energy and Climate Change published their Energy pathways analysis.

The report explores how we're going to get a reduction of 80% in GHG emissions by 2050 (a legally binding target since the Climate Change Act) and looks at all sectors of the economy and the contribution they can make to this goal, including agriculture. And although agriculture currently contributes what seems a small amount to total UK emissions (7%), the authors rightly point out that without abatement, by 2050 the sector would be responsible for over 30% of total emissions, clearly not a viable option.

The report used four possible pathways to illustrate the sort of choices that might have to be made regarding energy and emissions if we are to meet our 80% emissions target by 2050:
A) Business as usual, a continuation of today's trends and drivers
B) A policy focus on increasing food production
C) A policy focus on reducing GHG emissions through technology and knowledge transfer
D) A policy focus on domestic bioenergy production and carbon sequestration

Pathway C gave the greatest possible reduction of 27% (~12MTCO2e) below the 2007 baseline of 43MTCO2e, while Pathway B gave the least. This illustrates a) just how difficult it is to reduce emissions from this sector and b) that we need to learn a huge amount more about the processes that control these emissions.

The overall trends in all of the pathways is that the area of cropland will broadly remain constant (although some will be given over to bioenergy), the area of grassland will decline (by up to 4 million hectares in pathway D) and the area of woodland will increase (by up to 1.4 million hectares in Pathway D).

The pathways raise some challenging choices at a time when concerns over food and energy security are at their highest and we need to get on track to meet emissions targets. Many are calling for increased R&D to boost food production, but does this sit well with increasing bioenergy generation and carbon sequestration? Probably not, so where do we strike the balance?

Whilst zerocarbonbritain advocated a far bigger cut in livestock numbers (90% fewer beef cattle and 80% fewer dairy and sheep by 2030) than DECC?s report, the tension remains making our land work for us in terms of food security, energy security and carbon sequestration (as well as many other services) is challenging the scale of livestock production that we see today. One to watch.

And DECC's analysis is more than just a report, there's also an online calculator that you can use to explore for yourself the costs and payoffs of the choices we will have to make over the next couple of decades. Read the report and try the calculator here: http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/what_we_do/lc_uk/2050/2050.aspx

What do you think of the analysis, and what the industry should be doing? Get in touch with your comments.

Farming Futures