Pressure from thinktanks and the UK’s net zero review has seen the release of an awaited scheme to manage green farming subsidies

Farming and net zero are closely tied together in the UK, and many organisations have called for an increase in ambition. Will the release of ELMS change the narrative?
February 9, 2023

Mounting pressure from thinktanks, NGOs and independent reviews

Criticism for lack of ambition in the agriculture sector in the UK has come from the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) ‘land of plenty’ report that stated that within the UK’s net zero strategy, there was a ‘distinct lack of detail when it comes to the role of agriculture and land use’. Their report went on to look at what was possible for the UK agriculture policy and determined that, in their view, it was possible and necessary to achieve the following:

  • Reduce UK direct agricultural greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 35% by 2030 and 51% by 2050 on 2018 levels
  • Switch UK land from a net source of GHG emissions to a net sink by 2040 at the very latest
  • Halt and reverse the loss of UK nature by 2030
  • Cut UK farming’s overseas carbon footprint, particularly relating to soy feed and fertiliser inputs, by at least 31% by 2030 and 57% by 2050 on 2018 levels[i]

The first of their ten recommendations called for legally binding strategies to govern agricultural emissions and land use.[ii] So why is land use specifically so important?

Source: Unsplash

Farmers and landowners, according to the Green Alliance, may significantly contribute to the UK's net-zero transition by converting farms into carbon sinks. According to the research, by 2030, 10% of the UK's "least productive farmland" will be managed for environmental restoration initiatives such as wetlands, woods, and heavily grazed grasslands. By 2050, when the net-zero goal must be met, this would increase to 33%. In addition, the research asserts that by 2050, 60% of farmland will need to be farmed using agroecological practices, up from the current 3%. According to the Green Alliance, there will be a significant financial cost if farmland is not sufficiently converted into carbon sinks. Their analysis states that the UK would have to import substantial amounts of biomass, including wood pellets, in order to produce zero emissions from bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). According to the analysis, this could lead to costs associated with reaching net zero by 2050, increasing by £100 billion.[iii]

Green Alliance’s analysis of agricultural land use and net zero followed the release of the UK’s net zero review. urges the government to release its projected land-use framework at the earliest opportunity and no later than mid-2023. This is critical because UK land is crucial for farming, environmental preservation, and the construction of low-carbon infrastructure. Additionally, it demands that by the end of 2023, all information regarding the long-awaited environmental land management schemes (ELMS), the farmer-subsidy programme intended to take the place of the EU regime, be available. Farmers have complained that it has been difficult to invest in "climate-friendly" measures due to the lack of clarity surrounding ELMS.[iv]

It appears these calls from mission zero, perhaps due to mounting pressure from other entities, have been answered as the ELM policy was launched on the 26th of January.

What does the policy paper say?

This year, the Sustainable Farming Incentive will include six new standards, allowing farmers to be compensated for activities taken in relation to hedgerows, grassland, arable and horticultural land, and pest and nutrient management. They expand upon the three current requirements to enhance soil health and moorlands introduced in 2022 and which have already been adopted by approximately 1,900 farmers. By the end of 2024, a revamped version of the Countryside Stewardship system will make approximately 30 extra activities accessible to farms, and the government has outlined what farmers would be paid to deliver under this new programme. The addition improves upon the more than 250 actions farmers can currently take.[v]

At their heart, these new payments for farmers will replace the CAP (common agricultural policy), a piece of EU legislation that needed to be replaced following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The magnitude of CAP payments were predominantly determined by the amount of land owned by the claimant. This did lead to criticism of the scheme, with some claims that it favoured only the wealthiest of farmers in the UK.[vi]

The vice president of the National Farming Union, David Exwood, reacted to the release of details:

“British farmers are committed to delivering net zero agriculture by 2040, and the NFU remains committed to working with Defra to improve its ELM offer. It’s in all our interests to ensure sustainable, climate-friendly British farming in the future, with farmers producing food alongside their work in maintaining and protecting the environment,”[vii]

Mr Exwood’s sentiment is that the scheme must be inclusive and available to all forms of agricultural businesses. This is vital as all within the community endeavour to do their part.


[i] WWF- Land of Plenty

[ii] Ibid

[iii] Green Alliance- Shaping UK land use

[iv] UK Government- Mission Zero

[v] UK Government- Thérèse Coffey: Farmers central to food production and environmental action

[vi] BBC- Elms: England greener farming payments detail unveiled

[vii] NFU- ELMs: Defra announces long-awaited detail on actions for funding

Related Insights

Thank you! We'll keep you posted!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
Oscar Pusey
Research Analyst

Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.

Oscar's Insights