Danish farmers shared the plan of flooding of their lands to reduce emissions

Gill Andersen is, as far as she knows, the only British woman farming the lowlands of central Jutland. And after 32 years, she doesn’t think much of Denmark’s plans to meet new emissions targets by returning much of her land to peat bog.

“I don’t think there are any farmers who want to ruin the climate,” she says. “But the answer is not to flood our land and kill all the trees.”

Peat may seem like a fringe issue in the battle against climate change, but according to a recent study by Aarhus University, flooding cultivated former peatlands could cut Denmark’s emissions by 1.4m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – about the same amount produced by the capital city of Copenhagen. With Denmark now committed to the world’s most ambitious climate goals, these savings are in the spotlight.

The ruling Social Democrats struck a deal this month with supporting and opposition parties to enshrine these climate goals in law. “It’s the most ambitious climate law in place at the moment,” says professor Katherine Richardson at Copenhagen University. “This has been a social tipping point. Nobody in Denmark a year ago dreamed we could be in a situation like this now.”

Denmark, currently on track to reduce emissions by 48% by 2030, has now committed to reduce them by 70%, and to go carbon neutral by 2050. When the climate emergency and the environment unexpectedly became the main issue in the run-up to Denmark’s June election, the now prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, hurried to Jutland, to the Vejen Mose peat bog on the edges of Andersen’s land, to underline her green credentials.

Frederiksen came to see Andersen’s neighbour, farmer Henrik Bertelsen, who had already planned to flood 90 hectares, close to three quarters of his land. When former peat bogs are drained, organic matter trapped for thousands of years breaks down and releases carbon dioxide. Living peat bogs, on the other hand, absorb and trap carbon as they grow.

Bertelsen’s scheme aims to reduce emissions by an estimated 2,000 tonnes of carbon equivalent a year, enough to offset the total climate impact of 350 Danes.

“When people say that cultivating land like mine is one of the big problems and flooding land is key to reducing climate change, I think, ‘OK, I want to do that,’” he explains as we trudge through the sodden ground, cranes squawking all around us.

Denmark’s political parties agreed at the beginning of this month to spend over the next decade 200m Danish kroner (£23m) a year on buying up land for reflooding, and work is likely to begin in 2020.

In Denmark, opponents of climate action are in retreat. Even the far-right, anti-immigration Danish People’s party backed the law – quite something for a political party whose leader warned of “climate hysteria” in the election campaign and whose former chief talked of “climate morons”.

Two small parties which represent just a dozen seats opposed the action, making its passing in February a formality. All future governments will have to abide by the climate goals.

Denmark’s main business lobby, the Confederation of Danish Industry, is backing the 70% target and the Danish Agriculture and Food Council, the main agricultural trade body, aims to make the entire Danish food industry climate neutral by 2050.

Jørgen Olesen, the Aarhus professor behind last year’s study on cutting agricultural emissions, is concerned that Denmark’s goals are so demanding that meeting them will mean farmers will have to cut food production as well as flood land. Denmark can only reduce emissions from agriculture by about 20% without reductions in food production, he estimates.

“Given they have set themselves such a large emissions target, they might end up doing it, which in my view would be stupid,” says Olesen.

Maria Reumert Gjerding, president of the Danish Society for Nature Conservation, believes Denmark will have to sacrifice the bacon industry. “We cannot be the pork factory of the world when we are on the brink of a collapse of world climate systems,” she says. “We import a lot of soy to feed to our pigs to export to China. That’s just not sustainable.”

Such talk is too much, even for the pioneering Bertelsen, who plans to graze his beef steers on the flooded peat. He says, like it or not, global meat consumption is forecast to continue to grow for at least the next 30 years. “If we want to stop climate change, we have to produce meat where it is cultivated with the least climate impact,” he says. “So maybe it’s not such a good idea to stop producing it in Denmark and doing it somewhere else.”

Back at Andersen’s farm, the two farmers look over Vejen Mose towards Bertelsen’s land on the other side of the bog. Andersen is worried that pulling up the draining pipes and flooding the land will kill trees. “Without the trees in front of the nearby motorway,” she says in her light Cheshire accent, “the noise from the traffic will come directly up the hills to us.”

Andersen and her husband were instrumental in blocking one of Bertelsen’s earlier flooding schemes. Despite their disagreements, however, the two appear to be on good terms and Bertelsen is convinced that Andersen, and farmers like her, can be brought around.

“Five to seven years ago there was more opposition to a project like this – mostly from old farmers,” he explains. “They would say: ‘I remember when we made this land, when we dug the ditches and put in the pipelines and it was fantastic.’ They can’t understand why we are turning it back. But they are getting older, and some of them are dying, and the younger farmers are different.”

Andersen does appear to be wavering. Her Herefords might not tolerate wet, boggy soil, she says. “You could change them into water buffalo,” jokes Bertelsen. “But they’ve got horns,” she groans.