What are we trying to achieve?
Our journey began with a conference in July 2019 at Fir Farm in the Cotswolds
organised by National Farmers’ Union and the Sustainable Food
Trust Farming and Climate Change: Towards Net Zero Carbon
The speakers were inspiring, but trying to gauge the scale of the problem was
hard. What would it take to reach carbon neutral for a farm or a rural
parish? We had no idea! And, we suspected, nor did most of the
farms, country estates and local authorities with similar targets.
To our engineering brains a target was useless unless you could measure progress, and
that meant measuring greenhouse gas emissions across rural communities and businesses.
Like many others, we had used web-based tools to calculate the CO2 emissions we generate at home, and there are equivalents for many kinds
of enterprise including farms. Exploring these tools further, it became clear
that though highly detailed the tools are labour intensive and still deliver
only an approximation.
It occurred to us that calculating carbon emissions over an
area like a farm or a 3000ha estate was fundamentally a geospatial challenge. Over the past few decades
online mapping has taken an increasingly important part in our daily lives, so
using a mapping approach to model
carbon emissions over a region seemed like the way to go.
How does it work?
At a macro level, land use data can be used to calculate net carbon emissions,
but this approach requires gross approximations, particularly in rural areas
which account for 72% of the UK area. Land use across a farm unit will often change
over the year and this further compounds the problem.
Micro-level tools can help to calculate a carbon footprint for households and
businesses, including agricultural businesses. These models, however, are extremely detailed, requiring
a lot of effort to gather the data required. These micro-level models are
hard to use making uptake patchy and although valuable to the individual
they will not help gather a regional picture.
More importantly, the micro-models don’t work on a field-by-field basis that
allows for changing use over the seasons. For example, a farm’s main product may be
milk, but to feed the cows a farmer will make hay, cut silage and grow fodder
crops such as maize. Each of these activities has a carbon footprint and
aggregating the data to arrive at a net CO2-equivalent emission for a litre of milk is practically impossible.
Our meso-scale models will use a GIS-based approach to assemble land use on a field-by-field
basis and then derive CO2-equivalent emissions for each
parcel of land that can then be aggregated to a farm unit, a
region, an estate or a farming collective.
The broader picture
When we look wider at non-traditional uses of agricultural products the last
couple of decades have seen a huge expansion in new products and services.
- using biomass to produce bio-fuels
- creating chemical products from oilseeds rather than petro-chemicals
- using plant-based starches to create polymers for biodegradable plastics, and
- expanding the use of fibres in the textile and automotive industries.
As these new industrial uses for agro-products grow further, accurate carbon
accounting will be critical to judging their effect on the environment and
Isometrica’s geospatial database will play a key roll in supplying accurate data.