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Land Use and Agriculture

Success of net zero transition requires honesty about costs

Published on
26 May 2023

Steven Thomson writes for The Times

Big changes are under way across our economy as Scotland transitions to a net zero nation. That includes the way we grow our food and manage the land for which this country is famous. But there’s a problem. Speaking to many people on the ground, most don’t know exactly what is being asked of them. This was a clear message Scotland’s Just Transition Commission took from a recent visit to Grantown-on-Spey in the Cairngorms, where we spoke to local farmers and land managers. Land management has long-term production cycles meaning it is tough to plan and invest in the future with so much uncertainty. I have heard from people delaying making positive changes for the environment and their business for fear of making themselves ineligible for future agricultural support.

Once the latest biodiversity and climate change targets are published, expectations must be communicated properly before the new agricultural support structures come into effect in 2026. The sector will adapt, but land managers need to have confidence that the pathway they choose is correct, and will be rewarded. Big changes in support payments and land management rules, will affect land managers the length and breadth of Scotland during the next 5-10 years as we transition away from the EU’s common agricultural policy. Many farms and crofts rely on support payments to generate a profit, meaning changes cause real angst. There will certainly be challenges for the sector to overcome as farmers and crofters adapt to Scotland’s future conditional support payments that aim to drive greenhouse gas emission reductions and nature restoration. Clear and honest communication will be fundamental to bringing down emissions and doing so fairly.

Lots of the changes can be positive. We know methane from cows and sheep are a major cause of emissions meaning there will be a push for farmers and crofters to adapt to low methane breeding goals and start using methane inhibitors when they become available. Emissions from peatlands and wetlands are also significant and there will be increasing pressure on landowners to use the available funding to restore degraded peatland and wetlands. New woodland plantings will continue to be required and it is vital that farmers and crofters be given opportunities to access grants to help plant small areas of woodland on their land.

More is being asked of the agricultural sector while the support budget is declining in real terms. Although private markets may offer some new funding for carbon offsetting, or nature restoration, those markets remain in their infancy and are challenging for food producers to engage with when the retail and processing sector are increasingly interested in capturing the environmental footprint of food.

A just transition means real engagement between people and government so plans are put in place in a timely fashion and reflect local needs and concerns. Effective communication and meaningful engagement will be crucial in ensuring a truly just transition, one led by workers and communities rather than imposed top-down. There is no way around it: this is going to be a difficult conversation. Government must be honest and up front if we are to get it off the ground.

Professor Steven Thomson is a reader in agricultural economics at Scotland’s Rural College