The 'Farming for 1.5 Degrees' report which was released recently marked a joint effort between farmers and scientists to work out the best way forward for Scottish agriculture to meet the challenge of limiting global warming.

And while, at a mere 36 pages, it might have been a speedier read than some recent reports, it was an interesting and frank one for the farming sector – for not only did it highlight the importance of taking change seriously and with some urgency, it also took pot-shots at previous schemes and the pointed out some of the flaws which had hampered both their effectiveness and their uptake.

Now talking about doing something about climate change is nothing new for the industry – and the wide swings in growing seasons we’ve had over the past few years has been enough to convince most of us we’re at the pointy end of what appears to be a pretty real problem.

But, on top of suffering the direct effects of more extreme weather patterns, the industry is beginning to waken up to the fact that we can do something about it – and, conversely, scientists and politicians are beginning to realise that without getting us on-board they’re going to struggle to fulfil some of the very ambitious targets they have set for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases (or GHGs for brevity).

In short, the report said that this means we have the opportunity to be the champions of climate change – rather than the victims, or villains of the piece. Of course, the industry has often rolled out its record – highlighting that we’ve reduced emissions of the major GHGs by 16% since the base year of 1990.

However, it’s a sad fact that while better fertiliser use might account for some of this, the vast majority of this reduction is a direct result of a sharp fall in both cattle and sheep numbers over that time period.

And while there might be a willingness and acceptance of the need to do something to address what was earlier in the year declared a national emergency, the science is not only extremely complex but also still emerging – and this might have contributed to the lack of any detail or even a clear direction from governments as to how policy will develop to get us there.

But, with this key report being published within a fortnight of the Scottish Suckler Beef Climate Group’s recommendations, real signs that the issue is being taken seriously are beginning to emerge – and despite the hindrances of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ball really seems to be rolling now.

It would be fair to suppose that more reports and blueprints will be getting pulled forward onto the front burner as Brexit approaches and we enter the three-year 'Stability and Simplicity' interlude in which Scotland’s ‘steady-as-she-goes’ move away from area support allows the opportunity for pilot schemes to be rolled out in order to give these proposals a bit of a test run.

But I guess the first pilot scheme aimed at ushering Scottish agriculture forward along the road towards net zero was actually launched a few weeks ago in the form of the Sustainable Agriculture Capital Grant Scheme – which offered 50% of the cost of GPS equipment and tyres to reduce soil compaction, amongst a pile of other goodies.

Of course, the jury is still out on this first foray into the field of agricultural transformation – because from our side no one has yet heard if they’ve been successful at getting their grants and from the other side, just how likely it will be to have delivered on its aims also remains unknown.

Nonetheless, I have a sneaking suspicion that at least some of the requirements included in the scheme will echo through those which follow. One thread which seems to run through all these plans and proposals seems to be the importance which is being placed on carrying out a ‘carbon audit’ on the farm’s activities – effectively working out the carbon footprint of various enterprises to give a total for the farm.

This idea has, of course, been around for some time - across industry as well as farming - and although gauging the carbon footprint of a farm is incredibly difficult, it’s only really going to be possible to move forward by drawing up a baseline.

Some have been moving down this road – with the un-loved Beef Efficiency Scheme (BES) marking one of the first initiatives to require such an undertaking (although it also highlighted the need to keep schemes both practical and acceptable to the industry).

But anyone who had completed the carbon audit for the BES actually found themselves getting a leg-up on the pixie-point collection front in the aforementioned capital grant scheme – a fact which has not been missed by farm advisors and consultants around the country.

At a recent industry webinar, a leading consultant highlighted that carrying out a carbon audit was probably a key action point for anyone who wanted to be on the front foot for any future support measures.

Like any emerging technologies and approaches, though, at the moment there are several different tools around to carry out the aforementioned carbon audits (64 at a recent count) – and as they use slightly different processes. While different ones tend to give different results, they’re all jostling to be accepted and adopted as the standard.

SRUC, is pushing hard to have its Agrecalc accepted as the VHS version – and in its attempts to have others pushed into Betamax position, it even recently introduced a module which could give some indication of the amount of carbon sequestered. That's a factor which has been omitted from official calculations so far.

The system might at first seem overly complicated and it has to be admitted that it does take a fair bit of time to complete (or so my son who has taken on the job of being our carbon auditor tells me) but it has seen a degree of acceptance across not only government schemes but also other sectors.

In fact, the SRUC's principal, Wayne Powell, told me at the turn of the year that it was being taken up by the banking industry when vetting large-scale farm loans – and being used as evidence that banks are showing due diligence in addressing the issue of climate change when sanctioning credit.

The adoption of carbon audits and using them to improve production efficiencies is also being sold as a ‘win/win’ situation, with any improvement in efficiencies leading to lower GHG emission also likely to lead to an improvement in economic performance as well – and vice versa.

While that might make common sense and does appear to cover the majority of situations, there seems to be one exception which might need a bit of looking into. For, while there’s also a push to get us all to recognise the importance of testing our soil for pH and to increase the amount of lime we use – a practice which had fallen dramatically in recent years as margins were squeezed – it turned out that if you really, really want to muck up your score in the carbon audit, then apply lime.

I suppose that was inevitable, when the primary active component tends to be calcium carbonate (CaCO3), or dolomite (MgCa(CO3)2) – and I guess it could be argued that the penalties of using it will be offset by the benefits in future years.

However, while the calculations might use the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) methodology which assumes that that all C in ag-lime is eventually released as CO2 to the atmosphere, there’s research out there which indicates that this could be a massive overestimate of both the speed and the amount of CO2 released back into the air – and it’s an issue which needs resolving.

Like the Oxford findings on methane produced by cattle, which has led to calls for the IPCC to change its auditing methodology, perhaps it only highlights the fact that we’re working close to the edge of science.

But, while the system might not yet be perfect, it might just be that looking at our footprints will tell us which direction we should be travelling.