It’s difficult to escape carbon these days. We are all constantly being told how big our carbon footprint is and how bad that is. Everything we do seems to generate tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) that are, apparently, playing havoc with the environment and driving global warming.

In the grand scheme of things, UK farming is a fairly modest part of the problem. According to a report produced by the Country Land and Business Association, the NFU and the Agricultural Industries Confederation, forestry and agriculture accounts for 7% of the UK’s emissions, compared with 10-12% for agriculture worldwide. Emissions have fallen 21% since 1990 as the industry has become more efficient.

But climate change is a political hot potato right now and a top priority for the government. Consumers are also demanding more information on the impact of the products they buy which, in turn, means retailers are keen to trumpet their green credentials.

Inevitably, farming and the food chain will come under ever-closer scrutiny and, whatever farmers think about the science behind global warming, the industry must be able to respond to its critics.

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Total carbon emissions on Henry Aubrey Fletcher’s farm are equivalent to 1326t of CO2

“There is no point in us burying our heads in the sand,” agrees Allan Buckwell, policy director at the CLA. “Climate change is not only a topical issue, but one we expect to be of enduring concern for land managers for decades.”

The CLA is hoping that its new online Carbon Accounting for Land Managers (CALM) calculator, which is available free to anybody from today (7 March), will put farmers and landowners in a much better position to fight their corner and help their businesses.

“Without a speedometer you really don’t know how fast you are going,” Prof Buckwell tells me at the organisation’s London headquarters. “Most farmers have been aware that the government is saying they are part of the problem, but nobody knew what their carbon account was. CALM will tell them.

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Once you log on to CALM via the CLA’s website, calculating your carbon balance is a simple seven-step process.

“Understanding the carbon account of a business is a vital first step in thinking about climate change. Until the land manager knows the scale and source of his emissions, he cannot constructively think about ways to reduce them and the extent to which he can offset them through carbon sequestration or help others reduce their emissions by producing renewable energy.”

Developed in conjunction with the rural research team at property consultant Savills with funding from the East of England Development Agency, CALM works out a farm’s carbon balance by estimating how much carbon is released into the atmosphere and how much is locked away or sequestered each year by farming or forestry operations.

Agriculture emits a surprising amount of greenhouse gas, although most emissions are not in the form of CO2 like other industries, but as methane from livestock and nitrous oxide from arable soils and slurry. One tonne of methane is equivalent to 21t of CO2, while 1t of nitrous oxide is equal to a massive 310t.

Conversely, farm woodland acts as a store for huge amounts of carbon, something the industry receives little credit for.

CALM does not try to work out a complete carbon footprint for the food chain. A lot of the carbon emissions incurred, for example during fertiliser manufacture and downstream in food processing, are beyond the control of farmers. But it does take into account indirect emissions from the electricity used on farms.

“The point of CALM is not to scare anybody. Awareness is the name of game,” says Ian Bailey, Savills’ head of rural research. “What’s particularly good is that the numbers it uses are approved by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, so its results should tie in with the government’s own emissions calculations.”

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Becoming involved with, rather than fighting, the green agenda can also garner invaluable political brownie points and CALM has already been praised by DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn. “It is an important step in helping land managers to do their own accounting and has the potential to help engage them more fully in the role they can play in combating climate change,” says the minister.

But for farmers hit by rising input costs one of the most useful aspects of CALM will be its ability to pinpoint where on-farm cost as well as environmental savings can be made.

“It really does make you focus on your input use,” says Andrew Wraith, who heads up Savills’ agribusiness carbon working group and also farms in East Yorkshire. “From my point of view I’m looking at what you can do commercially with the results.

“What CALM allows you to do is work out the impact of changing certain aspects of your business and how it could improve your carbon balance. If, for example, you were able to become carbon neutral that might be information you could use to promote your produce to your customers.”

In the future CALM could also enable farmers to benefit from carbon trading. “We have to be able to measure exactly what levels of greenhouse gases we are storing before any realistic options for carbon trading can be developed,” says CLA president Henry Aubrey-Fletcher.

The trees on Henry Aubrey-Fletcher’s farm sequester a lot of carbon, but his cows emit more. Total emissions are equivalent to 1326t of CO2.

Why measure your carbon?

  • Climate change will affect UK agriculture
  • Prepare for the industry’s carbon critics
  • Help cut input costs and boost efficiency
  • Improve image with consumers