Toggle menu

Wiltshire Climate Strategy Discussion Document January 2021

Natural environment, land use and farming

Where we are now? Natural environment and resilience

The natural environment is an intricate, finely-tuned system that supports our physical and mental wellbeing, provides resources for all life and economic activity and also incorporates complex climatic processes. The term 'ecosystem services' is used to describe the functions that the natural environment provides. 

In nature, the carbon cycle emits and absorbs carbon dioxide all the time, for example through photosynthesis absorbing CO2, soil and oceans storing CO2 and volcanic activity, decomposition, and respiration emitting CO2. Additional greenhouse gases are important, such as methane (CH4). Human influences on emissions are not only due to fossil-fuel burning, but also due to the way land is used and managed. 

Trees and vegetation are natural stores of carbon and tree planting can play a role in offsetting our carbon emissions. UK average woodland coverage in the early 1900s was only 5%. 100 years later we have now increased to 13% nationally. The national target is to increase tree cover to 19% by 2055. In this context, our current tree cover in Wiltshire is 9% and we will need to define an appropriate target that takes into account our landscape and archaeology, as well as competing land uses.

We often look to trees when we think of carbon offsetting. However, soils simultaneously produce food, store carbon and purify water, so they are a crucial part of the earth's ecosystem services. The threat to soil is as important as the climate and biodiversity crises. Soil is being lost all the time, and it takes thousands of years for soil to be produced. The type of land use, e.g. cropland, grassland, wetlands, forest, settlements, and land management practices determine how much carbon the land holds or emits. The health of the soil and associated habitats are also vital in terms of resilience to climate change effects such as biodiversity loss and flood risk.

Where are we now? Food and farming 

The South West region is home to nearly a quarter of the nation's agricultural holdings, contributing twice as much to the economy and generating twice as many jobs as the average English region. Within the South West, Wiltshire is the most farmed county, with more than three quarters of its land being farmed commercially (273,555 ha of Wiltshire's total 348,500 ha). 

GHG emissions from agriculture, forestry and other land uses ('AFOLU') come from

  • Methane from livestock
  • fertiliser production and application 
  • soil disturbance and compaction
  • use of energy in farm buildings, machinery and waste

Our SCATTER (opens new window) 'Setting City Area Targets and Trajectories for Emissions Reduction' is a tool for local authorities to understand and analyse carbon emissions for their area.) analysis completed in 2019 indicated that 4% of Wiltshire's emissions comes from agriculture (112.9 ktCO2e). However, this is likely to be a significant underestimate and more research is needed to fully understand the emissions in this sector.

Land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) is a complex area, and in terms of carbon monitoring and accounting is one of the most difficult. For that reason, the Tyndall Centre suggests putting in place measures to reduce emissions, but monitor and track LULUCF separately from other sources and exclude it from Wiltshire's carbon budget.

In addition to emissions generated within Wiltshire through food production, our food also has an environmental (and social) impact elsewhere, both in its production and its transportation. Consumers are already becoming aware of the benefits of buying local, however there is currently a lot of confusion around the pros and cons of choices, for example in relation to eating less meat, or choosing organic.

What does a climate resilient and carbon neutral Wiltshire look like?

We need to look for ways to reduce carbon emissions from agriculture and other land uses. This includes working towards sustainable, low-carbon food and farming systems, where food production, whether within our county or elsewhere, minimises its environmental impact.

At the same time, the role of the natural environment in relation to climate is crucially around its ability to absorb greenhouse gases, and its potential for helping us to adapt and be resilient to climate change. 

In this context, the ultimate goal is to achieve a stable environment, that is able to provide ecosystem services to support social, economic and environmental wellbeing. All ecosystem services are interlinked, but for carbon neutrality and climate resilience we need to focus on:

  • Sequestration of carbon, by vegetation and well-managed soils
  • A strong network of green and blue infrastructure of different habitats - providing biodiversity resilience
  • Natural water management - reducing flood risk and summer droughts, and providing cooling corridors
  • Green networks to provide opportunities for sustainable, active travel, cooling and shade
  • An optimal balance between food production and other land uses such as woodland creation, renewable energy generation, housing.

What will make this happen?

We need to work with and support and protect the natural environment to reduce emissions (including offsetting measures) and become more resilient to climate changes 

Nature-based Solutions (opens new window) are actions to protect, sustainably manage or restore our ecosystems that address identified socio-economic and environmental issues, so we will need to look for options that offer benefits for biodiversity and human well-being, alongside carbon emissions reduction. 

In Wiltshire this means:

  • Reducing our carbon emissions to almost zero and using nature-based solutions (e.g. tree planting, better management of soils) to offset the remaining unavoidable emissions 
  • using nature-based solutions alongside technical measures to help us adapt and be resilient to a changed climate.
  • decisions and operations undertaken by Wiltshire organisations and businesses should place value on ecosystem services and fully consider impacts on the natural environment.

Wiltshire, as a rural county, has perhaps more potential than some other local authorities to use land to sequester carbon emissions. However, this raises the question of how our countryside should be used. We will need an open discussion to develop a vision and solutions that ensure a balance between land uses for food, carbon storage, renewable energy generation and development, while supporting health and wellbeing of people and nature. For example, solar installations may remove the ability to produce food on that land but can also bring benefits in relation to improvement of soil and biodiversity. 

It follows that our future landscapes may look different to what we are currently used to. In order to be carbon neutral and resilient it will be important to be pragmatic and open to necessary change, as well as valuing the historic, cultural and working environment that makes Wiltshire special and gives us a sense of place and identity. 

To date, farming subsidies have not necessarily supported widespread uptake of sustainable land management practices. The government's post-EU agricultural policy, including the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) (opens new window), alongside the Environment Bill (opens new window) represent opportunities for a low carbon farming future.

Wiltshire's network of water bodies, river catchments, green open spaces, parks, woodlands all link and function together as a green and blue infrastructure network. This resource needs to be bolstered, so that it can help offset emissions, offer shading and cooling, opportunities for active travel, recreation and wellbeing, flood risk management and support biodiversity. The emerging Green and blue infrastructure Strategy has 'adaptation and resilience to climate change' as the first of its three goals. The strategy will provide a framework for Wiltshire-wide improvements and protection of the network. It needs to be delivered in partnership with stakeholders, including developing delivery plans for nature recovery, tree and woodland planting and integrated water catchment management.

The Environment Bill provides the basis to support this work, for example developing a national National Recovery Network (opens new window) to address biodiversity loss, climate change and wellbeing, and includes increasing woodland cover, with associated funding, including the 'Nature for Climate Fund (opens new window).

While trees are part of the solution to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, tree planting alone is nowhere near enough to deal with all our carbon emissions:

  • Offsetting 10% of our current emissions as a county would take 104,500 ha - or one third of Wiltshire's area.
  • If we were to achieve 19% tree cover by 2055 in line with national targets, in Wiltshire we would need to more than double our tree cover in the next 35 years.
  • Other sensitives such as archaeology and special habitats may not be compatible with tree planting. 40% of our area is protected landscape designations.
  • Other land uses such as food production, renewable energy production and development may compete.

Maximum carbon sequestering benefits happen after about 40 years, so we need to develop a long-term strategy for trees and woodlands in Wiltshire, focusing on planting the right trees in the right places, to ensure maximum benefits. As a county we can also harness the benefits of other land uses than help to sequester carbon, such as permaculture and agroforestry.

What Wiltshire Council can do

  • Support biodiversity, and nature-based solutions through the Wiltshire Green and Blue Infrastructure Strategy 
  • Work with partners to develop a shared vision for sustainable, carbon neutral and resilient agriculture, forestry and land use in Wiltshire. Exploring optimal balance between food production and other land uses -e.g. renewable energy vs sequestration through woodland
  • Review the council decision-making and planning framework so that it values and fully considers impacts on the natural environment
  • Research carbon emissions and potential for emissions reductions from the agriculture, forestry and other land use sector
  • Work with partners (including County Farms, and existing networks) to measure and understand GHG from Wiltshire farms and forestry, to support sustainable management practices, develop carbon reduction plans, and climate resilience
  • Plant trees on its own land where appropriate, and support community groups to plant the right trees in the right places, in alignment with the emerging England Tree Strategy and Wiltshire Tree and Woodland Strategy
  • Work with Wiltshire stakeholders and community on ways to reduce GHG emissions from food and farming 
  • Work with partners to continue to implement the Wiltshire Council Climate Change Adaptation Plan and update the actions

Share this page

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share by email