Liz Truss’s government is reported to be moving to alter planning guidelines in order to undermine current plans for 30GW of solar farms across the UK. Most of these farms are planned on Grade 3b land, which is considered ‘moderate quality’ under the current classification. By reclassifying 3b land as ‘best and most versatile land’, on which there is a ‘strong presumption’ against solar farms, the government intends to remove a perceived impediment to ‘growth and boosting food production’, in response to a food security crisis which is certainly genuine.
But what of those other crises, the climate emergency and the energy price crisis? Surely the existence of more than one crisis cannot be an excuse for inaction. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) tells us we need to get to net zero by 2050 for a 50% chance of remaining within 1.5°C of average global heating. These emissions cannot be left to the last minute: at least 43% of reductions need to occur by 2030. And to remain within carbon budgets that are global, countries like the UK, that are well-positioned to decarbonise (due to their history of recent deindustrialisation) need to move considerably faster than the global average.
Government policy undermines both energy security and net zero
From this perspective, an independent review of the existing net zero plan – which now seems to have been de facto dumped – suggests its near term targets are already too slow. Cancelling already planned solar projects, that will provide 30 GW of energy capacity, will obviously slow this transition and make it more difficult. This is not counterbalanced by the government’s puzzling eagerness to relax constraints on onshore wind farms – a decision that, on current form, we can no doubt look forward to being reversed in a few years time, just as soon as plans are in place up and down the country.
As to the energy crisis, it has long been known that the quickest and cheapest way to acquire new energy capacity is through installation of renewables. The government were advised as much before deciding instead to bet on fracking and North Sea extraction. These fossil fuel projects will take decades to produce energy, and independent evaluation suggests the available quantities of shale gas are much lower than previously thought too. Renewable energy resources would increase our energy independence and resilience in face of shocks like the Ukraine war.
As to solar farms’ impact on food production, the issue is clearly overblown. According to analysis by Carbon Brief, solar farms currently take up only 0.1% of British land. If the solar targets inherited from Boris Johnson’s government were met, they would take up only 0.3%. That is around half the land taken up by golf courses (around 0.6%). No one, of course, has ever complained about the impact of golf courses on food security, but if we were serious about domestic food production, they would surely seem a more obvious target for repurposing than solar farms, given that they provide no cheap energy and only an amenity for the leisure class. One suspects this will not happen.
It is also true that solar farms could, in principle, be combined with food production. Sheep grazing is often mentioned, but this should not be encouraged due to the methane emissions and ecological devastation associated with sheep farming. But Carbon Brief also reports that some studies have shown that solar panels can be combined with other forms of agriculture, including horticulture and even wheat and maize production, without impacting yields. This could provide a basis for further research and experimentation, which the government could subsidise if it chose.
Navigating an age of permanent shocks
On the other hand, one could also – and without contradiction – argue that the government is simultaneously being overly sanguine about the dangers to our food system. Recent food price rises have been down to a number of factors, including post-pandemic supply chain shocks, rising energy prices, Brexit, and price gouging by big supermarkets. But shocks from the kind of extreme weather that is increasing as the planet heats are also part of the problem, and this year’s heatwaves will make things worse. Factor in soil erosion, decline in pollinator numbers, future pandemics – themselves linked to animal agriculture – and wars made more likely by all of the above, and we are moving into an age of permanent shocks.
If the government is worried about food production, why is it so disinterested in this enormous, looming crisis? Obviously, preserving 0.2% of British land from conversion to solar farms will hardly dent the problem. In truth, the government is merely interested in using its own dim appreciation of a crisis in our food systems as an excuse for inaction on the energy crisis. But when we consider the real solutions to the food crisis, it is easy to see how they reduce the pressure on the land, allowing space for both renewable energy and sufficient, sustainable food production.
In the first place, animal agriculture, itself a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions (around 14.5% globally), also uses a lot of land in a highly inefficient way. Mike Berners-Lee has documented that animal agriculture converts only around 10% of the calories and 25% of the protein fed to animals into products eaten by humans (and around 30% of animal food comes from human-edible proteins). One study has suggested that over 75% of the world’s agricultural land could be saved if we all moved to a vegan diet. Combinations of other new food technologies, such as urban agriculture, veganic horticulture, vertical farming and artificial proteins or meats, if supported by government, could push the savings up higher.
‘Best and most versatile land?’
We can add the issue of food waste. Currently, around one third of the food we produce is wasted. The issue of food waste is complex, and we shouldn’t imagine it’s just a matter of what we put in our bins: it occurs at all stages of the cycle of production, transport, sale and consumption. But an additional advantage of many of the techniques just listed, whether they rely on futuristic technology or community growing, lies in the fact that they allow a partial relocalisation of food production. This would allow reduction of travel costs and embedding of circular economy principles into our food systems.
Then there are biofuels, which make up an increasing part of our agricultural production. According to Carbon Brief, biofuel crops currently take up 77% more land than solar farms, whilst being much less productive in terms of energy: “a hectare of solar panels delivers between 48 and 112 times more driving distance, when used to charge an electric vehicle, than that land could deliver if used to grow biofuels for cars.” Biofuel also compares poorly to food production: according to carbon accounting expert Berners-Lee, the wheat used to power a car for a 1.1-mile drive could feed a person for a day.
In fact, one suspects that much of grade 3b land is taken up with animal feed, or for biofuels. A local farmer I talked to, who is installing 25MW of solar on his farmland, told me the produce of his land was chiefly used for animal feed. Official characterisations of 3b land suggests this is likely to be common: “Land capable of producing moderate yields of a narrow range of crops, principally cereals and grass or lower yields of a wider range of crops or high yields of grass which can be grazed or harvested over most of the year.” This description also suggests that its redefinition as ‘best and most versatile’ is somewhat oxymoronic, if not Orwellian.
Regressive ideology, vested interests and vast carelessness
Adding inanity to injury, the government is now justifying this hostility in terms of an antagonism to an obviously completely made up entity, a supposed ‘anti-growth’ coalition. There is no coalition between Labour, the SNP, the unions, XR, etc., except that forged in opposition to Truss’s own incompetence, and nor are most of these groups ‘anti-growth’, except insofar as this is simply code for being anti-tax cuts – an identification that presupposes the validity of the discredited ‘trickle-down’ approach to the economy. For that matter, what do we mean by ‘growth’ anyway? Economic growth increasingly seems to have become decoupled from human flourishing and the habitability of our planet, which are the main areas in which we would surely like to see ‘growth’.
But even taken on their own terms, analysis suggests that the value of the planned solar energy is 20 times the value of the wheat it might replace. And the fact is, the government is turning away £20bn worth of unsubsidised investment in solar in favour of grain production that is being abandoned precisely because the withdrawal of EU subsidies reveal how unprofitable it is. New solar farms pay business rates to local councils, and the farmer I talked to said that in securing his financial future, the solar farm would allow him to invest in landscape restoration on other lands he owned in the area. It is hard to see how this does not count as ‘growth’.
None of this makes any sense – so what the hell are the government up to? Perhaps we have gone beyond the point at which it is useful to speculate about the precise mixture of ideology, stupidity, ignorance, links to fossil capital and climate denial, and malice motivating their action. Each motivation seems so readily convertible into the others. In the end, their performance reminds me of nothing so much as F Scott Fitzgerald’s great line about two of his characters, ‘careless people’, who ‘smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’