Farming - Agriculture and climate change

What is the Issue?

Climate change is the most serious long-term challenge facing the world today, and farmers and other land managers will be one of the first sectors to feel the effects of a changing climate.

Agriculture can play a key role in providing bioenergy to replace fossil fuels, and growing other non-food crop products to replace those currently made from fossil fuels.

But agriculture must, like other sectors of the economy, also address its own direct emissions. Agriculture contributes about 7% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions.

Farmers must also consider the likely impacts of climate change and adapt to minimise the risks of such impacts. At a UK scale the government is assessing how farmers and other land managers can change their practices to help reduce the impacts of climate change on the wider economy and society.

Farmers can tackle and adapt to climate change as part of developing a sustainable agricultural business. Further information and links on three areas for action - bioenergy, mitigation of direct emissions, and adaptation - are shown below.

Further information on climate change, including what it means for the UK and the actions being taken internationally can be found in the Climate Change section of the Defra website, and wider policy issues specific to agriculture and land managers can be found on the Climate Change and Agriculture Policy page. For information on forestry and climate change go the Forestry Commission’s climate change site.

The Rural Climate Change Forum (RCCF) provides a high level forum for dialogue with Government, and authoritative advice and leadership for rural stakeholders, on climate change and rural land management.  More information is available on the RCCF’s pages.


How will climate change impact my business and what can I do to adapt?

Britain’s farmers will feel the impact of our changing climate very directly, and this can present both threats and opportunities. The potential threats include:

  • prolonged and more frequent droughts
  • changes in rainfall distribution
  • more storms and other extreme weather events
  • rising sea levels
  • increased and changing pest loads
  • increased risk of heat stress in livestock farming
  • possible changes in soil water balance.

There also may be opportunities for new crops and enterprises as temperatures increase and growing seasons lengthen.

While research suggests that climate change will not appear to threaten the viability of UK agriculture overall, individual agricultural businesses need to be ready to seize opportunities for new crops and markets, and to adapt to evolving pressures, such as water shortages and new pests and diseases.

What are the bioenergy opportunities for my business?

A key contribution from agriculture to tackling climate change will be through bioenergy to replace fossil fuels and growing crops to replace fossil fuel feedstocks in other products.

Further information and contacts are available for farmers on non-food and energy crops. Defra supports the growing of these crops through the Energy Crops Scheme.


Anaerobic digestion

A developing opportunity for farmers is biogas production from anaerobic digestion. This is a well-proven technology, but under-utilised in the UK. It helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing methane from organic wastes including manures and slurries.

Defra hosted an international workshop in November 2006 - Anaerobic Digestion in Agriculture: Policies and Markets for Growth. Expert presentations and case studies from the event provide information on the opportunities from anaerobic digestion.

The Government is committed to making the most of the potential of anaerobic digestion to contribute to our climate change, waste management and wider environmental objectives. Defra hosted a further workshop held in September 2007 to explore how best to facilitate a faster uptake of anaerobic digestion in England by local authorities, businesses and farmers.

What is the challenge for direct emissions from my farming business?

Agriculture is the second largest source of UK greenhouse gases, contributing 7% of total emissions. Of that:

  • only 1% is from carbon dioxide, for example from the use of diesel fuel
  • 36% of the UK’s methane emissions, a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide, come from livestock and livestock manures
  • 67% of the UK’s nitrous oxide emissions, a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide, also come from agriculture, partly from livestock manures but mainly from the use of artificial fertiliser.

Farmers should continue to maximise the efficient use of their inputs of fuel, feed and nitrogen as these minimise greenhouse gas emissions and reduce costs. Defra research has identified a range of cost effective measures for farmers to reduce methane emissions and nitrous oxide emissions.

Protection of the large stores of carbon in agricultural soils and potential for sequestering more carbon by changing farm practices is a key concern, as is the effect of a changing climate on soil chemistry. These issues are addressed in the Soil Action Plan and are the subject of further policy development and research.

To further drive innovation and research for mitigation, the agriculture section of the UK Climate Change Programme committed Government to scoping out options for a market or trading mechanism to deliver greenhouse gas reductions in the agriculture, forestry and land management sectors. This work is underway.

At this time the only specific greenhouse gas emission related controls for agriculture are in the IPPC regulations applicable to certain livestock units, and the Climate Change Levy and Agreements applied to horticulture. As part of the UK Climate Change Programme Defra is committed to better understanding the climate change mitigation effects of all Government intervention in support of sustainable agriculture, for example cross-compliance and environmental stewardship schemes, and consider how they might further be enhanced to deliver carbon savings.


Other documents and research resources

Defra continues to research impacts and adaptation issues, and proposed and in progress projects are available on Defra ’s science site or are listed below.

Further information

For further information contact Olawale Ladapo, Environment and Agriculture Team (email

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Page last modified: 10 October 2007
Page published: 1 July 2006

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs