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Mitigating climate change – Defra’s role

We are already seeing the effects of climate change. There has been a clear decreasing trend in Arctic summer sea ice levels since records began in 1979. Sea levels around the UK rose by 10cm during the 20th century. The earth’s surface has warmed by about 0.4°C on average since the 1970s. In 160 years of records, the 10 hottest years have all been since 1997.

The main cause of this warming is the emission of “greenhouse gases”, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide. Human activity over the past 250 years, including the burning of fossil fuels, land use change, and agriculture, has increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. As these gases build up in the atmosphere, they strengthen what is known as the ‘“greenhouse effect’”. For more information on the science of climate change please visit the Government Office for Science pages on climate change.

The case for government action

The government aims to limit global average warming to 2°C to avoid dangerous climate change. Average global temperatures are likely to rise between 1.1°C and 6.4°C above 1990 levels by the end of this century, depending on future greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change mitigation means limiting the extent of future climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions now and in the future. It can also mean removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, for example by planting more trees. 

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is the government lead department on climate change mitigation. DECC’s website provides more detail on the government’s overall work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Defra has an important role, because it is responsible for a number of policy areas which are associated with greenhouse gas emissions. This includes agriculture, forestry, land management, waste, fluorinated gases and non-CO2 emissions from industrial processes, and treatment and use of water. In many of these areas, Defra determines policy in England, working with the Devolved Administrations who determine policy in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Defra also leads on many policies which encourage sustainable behaviours, and supports the transition to a green economy, for example corporate emissions reporting and energy performance standards for products.

Defra also works with other departments to ensure we achieve reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in a sustainable way, by taking measures which bring wider benefits and which do not have unacceptable impacts.

The current situation and background

Emissions from agriculture are mainly methane from livestock and manure, and nitrous oxide from fertiliser use. Based on the best available science, current estimates are that these make up about 8% of total UK emissions. Agriculture can contribute to addressing these greenhouse gas emissions, and other environmental impacts, through more resource-efficient farming and land management, a vital task in the face of coming challenges such as growing populations. More detail on the work to address agricultural GHG emissions is available at Defra’s agriculture pages.

Emissions from the waste sector are mainly methane that escapes into the atmosphere from landfill sites.  It is caused by biodegradable waste, like food and wood, decomposing in landfill sites and giving off methane gas.  Much of this gas is captured at landfill sites, but the methane that does escape is estimated to make up about 3% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. Policies to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste sent to landfill form part of Defra’s Waste Review.

Trees, woods and forests are cost effective ways to combat climate change and they provide many other benefits too.  We want to see a major increase in woodland creation of the right tree in the right place and a greater level of sustainable forest management in England.

Woodlands planted in England over the past 90 years currently remove about 3 million tonnes CO2 a year from the atmosphere. However, this effect is expected to decline as many of the conifer forests planted between the 1950s and 1980s mature and are harvested (and then replanted). The wood harvested from forests can also contribute to climate change mitigation through substituting for fossil fuels, directly (as woodfuel), and indirectly when timber and wood products are used to replace materials with high embedded energy. The independent Read Report: Combating climate change: a role for UK forests, identified woodland creation as a cost effective mitigation option. It has the potential to provide additional reduction of 15 MtCO2 per year by the 2050s if UK woodland cover were increased from 12 to 16% over that period. The Forestry Commission, working with Defra, the private sector and civil society, have established the Woodland Carbon Task Force to facilitate an increase in the rate of woodland planting to help mitigate climate change.

Fluorinated greenhouse gases (F gases) are more powerful greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide, but are released into the atmosphere in much smaller quantities. F gases currently make up about 2% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), Perfluorocarbons (PFCs) and Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6) are all types of F gas.  F gases are used in air conditioning and commercial refrigeration systems and in other areas such as fire protection systems, solvents and high voltage switchgear.  Legal obligations intended to reduce F gas emissions apply in all of these areas.  Manufacturers and distributors must also comply with certain obligations and bans.

Industrial processes (in this context) cover significant emissions from industrial uses of greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. Emissions currently regarded as significant are nitrous oxide from two installations producing nitric acid as a step in the production of fertiliser. These uses are subject to integrated pollution prevention and control. See the Industrial emissions pages for more details.

Water is essential for life. Ways need to be found to use water more sustainably and efficiently if high quality standards and security of supply are to be maintained.   Being more efficient in the way hot water is used has a significant contribution to make to mitigation efforts. Energy consumed in domestic use of hot water for things such as personal and household washing accounts for about 5% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the actions which can be taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change in the water sector revolve around being more efficient in the use of water. Using less water saves energy and the emissions associated with treating that water. For more information see the water pages, and visit the Directgov website.

Everything we produce and consume – such as food, clothes and cards – has an impact on our environment, including greenhouse gas emissions.  Defra is seeking to reduce these impacts through initiatives to improve the sustainability of:

Relevant legislation and regulations

The Climate Change Act 2008 introduced a binding reduction target requiring the UK to reduce its emissions by at least 80% by 2050 against 1990 levels. It also introduced a long-term framework for managing emissions through a system of national carbon budgets: caps on the total quantity of greenhouse gases permitted in the UK over a specified time. Each carbon budget covers a five year period, with the first three carbon budgets running from 2008 to 2012, 2013-2017 and 2018-2022. During these periods, emissions must be reduced (from 1990 levels) by 22%, 28% and 34% respectively. More information on carbon budgets is available on DECC’s website.

The UK also has European and International obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Details of these can be found on the DECC website where you can also find up to date statistics on how the UK is performing against its emissions reduction commitments.

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Page last modified: 24 November 2010