Britain can achieve its climate change goals without lecturing people to eat less meat, the Environment Secretary has said, as he pushed back on calls to change diets and tax burgers.
The Government’s climate change advisers this week said not enough was being done to encourage people to cut a fifth of their meat consumption by 2030.
Agriculture accounts for around 10 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from livestock methane, and it uses land that the Climate Change Committee (CCC) says is needed for terrain that sucks up carbon such as woodland.
But George Eustice said keeping British livestock that was fed on grass rather than grain would be “one of the key components of our work to get to Net Zero”.
The Environment Secretary’s comments were echoed by Chris Skidmore, the former business minister who signed the legislation in 2019 committing the UK to become carbon neutral.
Writing for the Telegraph below, he says the Government must avoid the “mission creep” of encouraging dietary and lifestyle changes because it "risks alienating people when we need to take everyone with us".
Mr Eustice, pictured above, also said the CCC had overlooked innovations to reduce methane emissions from ruminants like cows and sheep, which would be more effective than “an online advertising campaign”.
He said: "The Climate Change Committee say we should be eating higher-value meat, meat that costs more money, and probably a little bit less of it, but it should be produced to the very highest standards in a pasture-based system.
“I agree with that overall but I don’t agree about getting there by lecturing people about what they should eat."
He was speaking at Groundswell, an annual event on regenerative agriculture that emphasises the importance of soil health to lock up carbon.
The use of grazing animals is one of the key principles, because it provides a natural fertiliser and allows for the growth of grass and other crops that protect soils.
A study from the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission suggests that switching to a grazing livestock system would mean grain-fed pork and poultry production would drop, and 7.5 per cent of current agricultural land could be given over to forestry and other uses.
Mr Skidmore also calls for a greater focus on nuclear power and green alternatives to heavy industry. He says: "Boris Johnson is right to invest in Britain’s future as a “global science superpower”, yet for energy, this means going nuclear or go home.
"Unless we invest in a new fleet of reactors, we will face potential power shortages a decade from now as our existing fleet begins to shut down. Again, we can avoid the mistakes of the past by training a new generation of workers to onshore our nuclear capacity, rather than find ourselves in the debt of China or France."
Farmers face an uncertain future over what systems of agriculture will be profitable as the UK overhauls its £3.5billion subsidy system in the wake of Brexit. The new system is intended to provide "public money for public goods", including better soil health, reduced fertiliser use and higher animal welfare.
However, they are concerned that increasing standards in this country will lead to them being undercut by cheaper and more polluting imports as the Government makes new trade deals.
Mr Eustice has repeatedly raised the prospect of carbon border taxes on agricultural products, but that would entail similar carbon taxes on British products, likely to hit meat and dairy production.
An upcoming food strategy written by Henry Dimbleby, the Government’s food tsar, is expected to say some form of meat tax might be needed at some point for health and environmental reasons, according to reports this week.
But Mr Eustice said any border carbon adjustments on agriculture would not happen in “the foreseeable future”.
Prepare for the populist backlash, if net-zero becomes an elite project
Two years ago today I sat down at my ministerial desk and signed a piece of legislation that quietly committed the UK in law to reducing its carbon emissions to "net zero" by 2050 writes Chris Skidmore. We would drastically reduce our carbon footprint, to the point of negating any carbon dioxide that we could reasonably be held responsible for. We would become, in the stroke of a pen, the first G7 country to commit to such an endeavour.
Looking back two years on, little could I have fathomed that the UK’s leadership on net zero would have set off a chain reaction across the globe, with 75 per cent of the world’s land mass now signed up to a net zero target.
In November later this year, at the United Nations summit on climate change, COP26, held in Glasgow, the stage will be set for the UK to once more demonstrate its climate leadership on the global stage by forging international agreement on each country’s emissions targets. Global Britain is back, wrapped in a union jack tinged with green.
To achieve net zero by 2050, however, requires not merely a plan, but a massive transformation to every aspect of our lives. Gas boilers out, heat pumps in; goodbye to petrol, hello battery powered electric car.
Already the UK has demonstrated that large emissions reductions can take place, thanks mainly to winding down coal fired power plants in favour of gas. We have built the largest offshore wind farm in the world in the North Sea and are reaping the benefits as the cost of renewable energy comes crashing down.
Ask any person on the street, however, who or what keeps the lights on, and you are likely to draw a blank. Recent polling has shown that barely 10 per cent of the population even know what net zero means. In the race to burnish our green credentials, we run the risk of making deals on the international stage without taking our local population with us.
Don’t get me wrong. I desperately want net zero to succeed. But to do so, perhaps we need to reflect on how Brexit can carve a path towards this new national mission. Taking back control wasn’t merely a slogan, but a cry for self-determination across much of our regions where the impact of offshoring manufacturing supply lines had decimated our local skills base.
Net zero has the potential for the UK to turn the clock back. Sovereignty across the supply chain is critical here. We cannot commit to net zero in the long term unless we ensure that we will not be held at ransom by another country for materials needed to secure our green future. Whether it be carbon fibre manufacture – we currently import all of our carbon fibre, a material essential for wind turbines or hydrogen tanks – or lithium mining in Cornwall for batteries, we need to act now to deliver a sustainable production line of the raw materials that will power a green revolution made in Britain.
Boris Johnson is absolutely right to invest in Britain’s future as a "global science superpower", yet for energy, this means going nuclear or go home. Unless we invest in a new fleet of nuclear reactors, combined with the next generation of smaller reactors suitable for regional deployment, we will face potential power shortages a decade from now as our existing fleet begins to shut down. Again, we can avoid the mistakes of the past by training a new generation of skilled workers to onshore our nuclear capacity, rather than find ourselves in the debt of the Chinese or the French.
We will need to address not only our energy supplies but the sectors which emit the most carbon into our atmosphere. Here clear leadership on future alternatives to cement, steel, and other carbon heavy industries that make up 80 per cent of our emissions must be our priority. While climate change analysts talk of changes to individual patterns of meat consumption, or cutting down on lifestyle patterns, this kind of mission creep runs the risk of alienating people when we need to take everyone with us.
The worst of all scenarios would be to create an elite-led, grand projet, a net zero mission dictated by international convention that fails to be grounded in the day to day conversation of ordinary life. The consequences of this could be disastrous, with populist movements turning against climate change policies, securing platforms that might reverse any consensus agreed this year.
Ultimately, if net zero is to succeed, we need to understand better that fundamental principle that led to Brexit: trust. If we trust the people, who understand full well the need for change, we can be honest about the scale of what lies ahead.
We need to level now with people about the trade-offs, the compromises and sacrifices, but also the benefits that can be secured through making change happen now. Trust means working with people to achieve shared ambitions and potential, not working to a centralised plan without widespread support that will be destined to fail. Our future is too important to fail. Yes there will be challenges to achieving net zero, no one doubts that, but let’s seize the benefits with both hands too.
Chris Skidmore MP was universities, science and research minister between 2018-2020 and energy minister in 2019 when he signed net zero into law