Ireland is an outlier in Europe in that about a third of our greenhouse gas emissions originate from agriculture – a much higher proportion than any other EU country.
These emissions mainly come from livestock (cattle burps), fertiliser, manure management and grasslands, but reducing emissions in agriculture has proven a contentious issue, due to the evident role our livestock-focused system is playing in our exceptionally high agricultural emissions profile.
Last week the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine released its Draft 2030 Agri-Food Strategy, with a vision of Ireland becoming a world leader in sustainable food systems over the next decade.
The document presented a range of welcome measures for Irish farming in the areas of air quality, water quality and biodiversity, but the lack of ambition in the area of climate action means the strategy’s proposed measures will make it all but impossible for the government to reach economy-wide climate targets.
The government is committed to reducing the overall amount of heat trapping or greenhouse gases across all sectors by 51 per cent between 2018 and 2030. The interaction between the level of climate ambition in agriculture and the rest of the economy is important as lower levels of emissions reduction in agriculture have to be compensated for in other areas of the economy, mainly in the energy sector such as in transport, electricity production and heating.
If the Agri-Food Strategy proposal of a 10 per cent reduction in methane emissions (mostly from cows and sheep) by 2030 is to be accepted, then the reality is that all other energy-related emissions would have to drop by about 70 per cent to meet the government’s overall ambition. In effect, it would require a much higher level of effort in the sectors outside of agriculture to compensate.
This strategy shifts the costs and burden of emissions reduction from the agriculture sector to electricity, heating and transport beyond a level that is credible and beyond a level that is possible.
A number of arguments are cited in defence of a special relationship for Irish agriculture in the context of wider emissions reduction, namely in relation to the specific type of greenhouse gas, methane, that dominates the sectors and also in relation to the risk of increased food production from less sustainable parts of the world leading to an overall increase in absolute emissions even if Ireland reduces output.
From a scientific perspective, the argument is correct that methane is a different greenhouse gas to the most common type, carbon dioxide. It is more potent but stays in the atmosphere for shorter periods of time.
But methane is not different in how it should be treated if we want to reduce global warming. The consensus from the International Panel on Climate Change is clear that all methane emissions must reduce, but importantly not at the same level as other warming gases.
This science, which shows methane reducing by between 25 to 50 per cent by 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement goals, has underpinned New Zealand’s climate target, a country with a similar agricultural emissions profile to Ireland.
It can also be argued that developed economies like Ireland should reduce methane faster than this to allow for developing countries increasing their native food production.
In terms of global food, there are concerns about the increase in global emissions that would result from a reduction in beef and dairy production here in Ireland. This is a term called “carbon leakage” and is conceptually correct but difficult to measure and verify in a future world.
Having reviewed the evidence, the Climate Change Advisory Council determined that it is unlikely that mitigation in Ireland will cause an increase in global emissions. It also noted that the potential release of land from a reduction in beef production could support alternative uses, raise farm incomes and reduce exposure of the sector to external market shocks.
Looking to the future, food production will remain the main use of land in Ireland and farming will continue to be an important element in rural life and the Irish economy. But it must be sustainable in all dimensions and greater innovation and diversification of farming is needed.
Feed additives which reduce methane emissions from cattle are coming on the market, but applications for grassland-based systems are not yet developed or costed, and can’t be relied upon to reduce emissions by 2030.
The structure and size of our national herd is a fundamental driver of emissions and efficiency improvements are not enough to meet targets. Framing climate action negatively in terms of losses to the “national herd” are unhelpful.
To remain relevant in a world that is demanding higher levels of environmental sustainability, Irish farming must rise to the challenge.
The 2030 Agri-Food Strategy is not adequate in relation to emissions reduction and should be revised upwards to align with the plan for the government’s economy-wide targets and our global obligations.
Dr Hannah Daly is a lecturer and Dr Paul Deane is a research fellow at the MaREI Centre and University College Cork