George Eustice has defended Government efforts to cut emissions from the countryside, saying he was “optimistic” about the role new technology could play.

The Environment Secretary faced MPs at the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) after independent climate advisers warned his department, Defra, was “really, really failing” to deliver its part in cutting emission to zero overall by 2050, known as net zero.

In its latest report, the Climate Change Committee said the Government was not delivering on the policies needed to achieve net zero, singling out farming and land use, as well as buildings, as particular problem areas.

Climate Change Committee chief executive Chris Stark said the Government programme was set up to deliver the targets the UK has but there was a “dishonourable exception for agriculture and land, where Defra are really, really failing to deliver emissions reductions at the pace required”.

But Mr Eustice told the EAC that some technological solutions needed to develop, such as ways to inhibit methane emissions from livestock, capture methane from slurry stores or substituting manufactured fertiliser with more organic compounds.

The Northern Farmer: Environment Secretary George Eustice

“We need to keep the space for those technologies to develop in the way that we need them to, because we can’t achieve net zero just by planting trees, important though that will be.”

He added: “I think I could summarise our differences, with the Climate Change Committee, in that we are far more optimistic about the role that technology will perform in some of these areas, and we’ve already seen in the last two years that develop.”

He suggested the advisory committee wanted the Government to “lock down” a fixed programme of policies based on what was available today, but that could be unrealistic or have unintended consequences.

In response to recent tree planting figures that showed little improvement despite ambitious plans from the Government to boost woodland creation to tackle the climate and nature crises, Mr Eustice said more generous grants would help to boost planting rates.

He said there was a pipeline of prospective projects that meant there was “reasonable confidence that we’re going to see a big uptick” in planting rates, though he acknowledged it might fall short of Government targets.

The Climate Change Committee’s report rated the Government’s progress on woodland creation and peatland restoration to cut emissions as significantly off track.

But Mr Eustice said: “We are doing all these things, peatland restoration and tree planting, and we’ve set out clear ambition on that.”

He said the committee had been calling for more action, but it was up to Government to take a judgment on what were high but realistic ambitions and balance that with what technology could deliver.

Mr Eustice said Defra would be producing a new land use strategy, and have policy incentives to achieve net zero emissions, help nature recover and at the same time maintain food production at the same rate.

Quizzed on alternative uses for farmland such as solar farms or growing biofuels, in the face of food security issues, he said there was a role for biofuels in decarbonising long term, even if production should be temporarily reduced.

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But he said solar schemes were “a much more permanent land use change where you are taking land out of agricultural production”.

He said that during a “solar rush” in around 2015, it was agreed with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government that guidance would be issued to planning authorities, which created a strong presumption against solar farms on the best and most versatile land.

“We’re conscious that there’s been a few quite big schemes in recent months over the last 12 months where planning authorities seem to have either forgotten or started to disregard that advice,” he said.