Pollution from factories

Is UK Farmland at Risk From Corporate Greenwashing?

There’s nothing more quintessentially British than rolling green fields, dry stone walls, single-track lanes that wind up hills like coiled snakes, and sheep dotting the green with puffs of white. Farmland has been a prominent feature in this country since around 4,000BC and, besides the odd telephone pole, passing combine harvester or high-vis jacket, very little has changed. 

Most estimates suggest that the UK is made up of around 70% farmland, which continues to underpin a substantial rural economy. Understandably, it is protected by a number of policies and laws that seek to preserve these rugged and fertile open spaces. At times, the government’s stance on maintaining the sanctity of British farmland wanders into the overprotective. The Conservative party under both Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak has continuously reaffirmed its disdain for the idea of lending Britain’s spare farmland to a number of high-capacity solar farms, which could drastically reduce the country’s dependence on the national grid, along with its carbon footprint. Criticisms levelled against large-scale commercial solar farms are almost entirely motivated by a supposed concern for maintaining the beauty and appeal of British farmland. 

As a result, any plans to boost the UK’s solar capacity remain on the backburner, in spite of looming deadlines for reduced carbon emissions and, eventually, carbon neutrality. 

But there is a new threat to the British countryside – something far more insidious. Operating under the guise of sustainability initiatives intended to improve the country’s well-being, rather than harm it, have turned their attention to the acres of free space as a medium for corporate greenwashing. 

What’s happening? 

In order to understand why UK farmland is at threat, you need to understand how corporations are taking advantage of carbon offsetting schemes in order to convey a more responsible, environmentally-aware approach – something that is increasingly important to the average consumer. 

Carbon offsetting is something we have written about in great detail, particularly recently thanks to new changes that mean many carbon credits will no longer be valid for claims of ‘carbon neutrality’. In a nutshell, carbon offsetting is the practice of investing enough money into an environmental initiative to offset the damage a business is doing to the planet. It is built on the premise that, if one were to plant enough trees, they could neutralise or counteract the vast quantities of carbon their production plants are pumping into the atmosphere. 

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the real value of carbon offsetting, and whether or not it could ever be considered fair compensation for extreme environmental damage. Corporate greenwashing comes in many different guises, but carbon offsetting (when committed by large-scale corporations responsible for many tonnes of CO2 each year) is generally seen as one of the most egregious by experts. 

Of course, one of the things these schemes require is plenty of space. Planting thousands of trees a year necessitates a lot of spare room for new forests, and this is exactly where UK farmland is brought into the equation. With so much of the country’s landmass ‘going spare’, how long before it becomes the next big thing in greenwashing? 

Mark Spencer, the UK’s Farm Minister, recently told reporters at the Financial Times that, without proper monitoring, it may not be long before some of the world’s most prolific carbon producers (Shell, for instance, or British Airways) simply buy-up British farmland and create hundreds of new forests in recompense for their contribution to the climate crisis. 

Would more forests really be a bad thing? 

It’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. 

Forests are great for promoting biodiversity – and, of course, for capturing more of the excess carbon in our atmosphere. Rewilding areas is a great practice, particularly in light of the fact that around 95% of the UK’s woodland is in poor condition.  

Of course, planting trees is, in and of itself, a very productive exercise. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, making them vital for any proposed green recovery. Deforestation has had a significant impact on the amount of woodland covering the planet – and recouping those losses is imperative. What’s more, most experts agree that, if the country is to realise its goal for net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the amount of woodland covering the UK will need to increase significantly. 

But, as the Guardian points out, forestry plantations are not a like-for-like replacement for the country’s native forests. Biodiversity is limited, and non-native species tend to be planted in far greater numbers than the UK’s native trees. Even if the world’s largest carbon producers bought thousands of acres of unused agricultural land and turned them into forest plantations, the country’s woodland would still be in decline. 

Greenwashing at Scale

Unfortunately, increasing the UK’s forest cover isn’t the main issue at hand. Even in a best-case scenario, where native trees are prioritised – along with regeneration for existing woodland – trees can only do so much, and to suggest that a few forests could compensate for the catastrophic damage being caused by the world’s largest polluters is a dangerous line of thinking. 

Not all carbon offsetting initiatives are bad or insidious, and plenty of companies are using them as a productive complement to a more realistic plan for reducing their carbon footprints. 

But, recently, a number of high-profile brands have been distancing themselves from carbon-offsetting, despite the fact that, even just a few weeks ago, it represented a major element of their corporate responsibility manifestos. This change was largely due to the fact that one of the leading offsetting providers, Carbon Trust, stopped stating that carbon offsetting schemes were a way to achieve carbon neutrality. The company was utilised by many big players like Shell, and the step away from claims of carbon neutrality has forced many to drastically rethink their sustainability drives. 

But this change in policy won’t necessarily push businesses away from using forest plantations as a greenwashing disguise, and Mark Spencer warns that, before too long, the UK countryside could be nothing but a vehicle for corporations to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. Using this land for such a cynical practice won’t bring any lasting benefits to the UK public. Instead, it will enable greenwashing practices to take greater hold.

In other words, the UK could be wielded as a tool for furthering the crisis, even as it works to secure its own carbon neutrality. 

What’s being done to stop it? 

The Carbon Trust’s decision to divorce ‘carbon neutrality’ from carbon offsetting schemes is a big step in the right direction, along with growing pressure on policymakers to impose harsher penalties on greenwashing practices intended to lure customers who are trying to make themselves more environmentally friendly. 

If lasting change is to come, the public and private sectors need to be operating under the right assumptions, and not being misled by those with the money and power to mislead. 

Mark Spencer isn’t the only person to be wary of new forest plantations. The National Farmers Union released a statement from their president, Tom Bradshaw, reinforcing Spencer’s original sentiments. He warned of the risks of taking valuable agricultural land permanently out of the picture and of shrinking the country’s agricultural sector further still. 

British farming has, after all, been in decline for some time. The pressures of Covid-19, high inflation, and the war between Russia and Ukraine have all had a trickle-down effect on agriculture.

Nevertheless, the same forces that are working against companies that continue to look for opportunities to greenwash their practices are also helping to revive the British farm. The public want to know more about where their food comes from – what sort of a carbon footprint they are leaving and how the environment is being supported through the production of the grains, vegetables, and meats they buy. 

So far, Shell and British Airways have both denied having any intentions of buying up cheap British farmland for carbon offsetting schemes but, even still, a big risk remains. With British farmland currently for sale at rock-bottom prices – and more businesses looking to work economic carbon offsetting schemes into their sustainability drives – it’s almost inevitable that some degree of pushback will be required down the line if we are to avoid a new breed of exploitation taking hold. 

The UK’s own sustainability sector needs a fresh cash injection from the government and private investors in order to meet its targets. A thriving market for renewable energy would create countless new jobs, steady cash flow, and a concerted push toward carbon neutrality. It is relatively simple. But greenwashing schemes like planting trees in exchange for devastating carbon emissions complicate what should be very easy, and the loss of British farmland would be just the very tip of the iceberg. 


Atlantic Renewables

Atlantic Renewables are a solar PV design and installation company, providing affordable solutions in Manchester, Cheshire and throughout the North West.