Defra data scale back could inhibit action on climate change

30th March 2016

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Joan Isus

Plans to scale back collection of data by the environment department (Defra) could damage the UK's ability to meet carbon emission reduction targets, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said.

Defra is planning to close or reduce the frequency of several datasets covering farming; food; air quality and emissions; environmental protection; waste, recycling and resources; water quality and abstraction; forestry; animal and plant health; flooding and biodiversity. A consultation on the proposals closed last week.

It states that the vast majority of changes proposed are to agricultural statistics, with only limited alterations expected in forestry, fishing, and animal and plant health.

In its response to the consultation, the CCC highlighted the higher uncertainties over agricultural data than for other sectors covered by the National Atmospheric Emission Inventory (the NAEI), which the government uses to estimate and report on annual emissions.

This makes it even more important to have sources of good quality data against which to assess progress in reducing emissions, the CCC said.

The committee also said changing or scrapping the collection of certain datasets could also damage the agricultural industry’s ability to track the progress of its greenhouse gas (GHG) action plan, which includes a commitment to reduce emissions in England by 3 MtCO2e by 2020.

The CCC is particularly concerned with proposals on four datasets:

  • British survey of fertiliser practice (BSFP) – This captures the application of organic and inorganic fertiliser, which makes up a significant source of nitrous oxide emissions in agriculture (around 44% in 2013). Defra is proposing to scale back the survey to ‘essential items’ and review the sample size, but the CCC said this would reduce the ability to monitor progress in reducing nitrous oxide emissions through improvements in fertiliser use efficiency.
  • Farm practices survey (FPS) – This focuses on practices relating to GHG mitigation. Defra is proposing to conduct the survey every four years instead of annually. The committee said the frequency change would severely restrict Defra’s ability to develop cost-effective, well-targeted policies and its own ability to review progress.
  • Agriculture in the UK – Proposed changes to the format and scope of this dataset could hinder an understanding of the drivers of emissions in agriculture, the CCC said. It provided the example of the data related to agricultural output and area of land use, which it uses together with emissions data to understand how emissions intensity of output changes over time.
  • Agricultural statistics and climate change – Proposed changes to the content and frequency of the report could weaken the ability of Defra, the CCC said, adding that this would hinder its ability to effectively monitor progress against the ten GHG indicators that the environment department established in 2012.

In a letter to Defra, Matthew Bell, chief executive of the CCC, noted that agricultural emissions currently account for around 10% of total UK emissions, and that this share could be expected to increase as other sectors decarbonise more quickly.

‘Deeper reductions in agricultural emissions than those seen to date will be required in order to contribute to statutory emission reduction targets. The requirement to have robust data will become even more important in order to ensure cost-effective policies that support UK agriculture can be put in place and to adequately monitor farming practices and impact on emissions,’ he wrote.


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