Irish agriculture is the least climate-efficient in Europe, according to a EU study which is likely to trigger further debate over the sustainability of Ireland's agricultural ambitions.
The research, commissioned by the European Parliament, found that Ireland had the highest level of greenhouse gas emissions per euro of agricultural output of 28 member states.
The finding reflects Ireland’s primary focus on more carbon intensive beef and dairy systems, which contrasts with other countries where forestry, vegetables and grains account for a larger share of activity.
The Department of Agriculture has previously highlighted that emissions per unit of output in Ireland’s dairy sector were one of the lowest in Europe, while beef emissions were also below average. However, the EU’s study, which uses emissions and output data relating to the 2012-14 period, examines emissions from agricultural output as a whole.
A spokesman for the Department of Agriculture said: “While greenhouse gas productivity per euro is a widely-accepted indicator at international level to monitor green growth, it is not a measure of a typical carbon footprint per unit of agricultural output, and so should not be interpreted to mean we are the least climate efficient.”
The EU study suggested most countries, including Ireland, were managing to combine higher productivity in agriculture with a lower carbon footprint, albeit with varying degrees of success.
It also noted that Ireland’s per capita expenditure on agricultural research and development was considerably higher than other member states.
The findings come in the wake of the Government's draft strategy to cut Irish emissions, published by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten last month.
The plan acknowledges that Ireland is currently not on track to meet its so-called “carbon budgets” for 2020 and 2030, partly because emissions from agriculture, Ireland’s largest carbon emitter, “are likely to flatline at best”.
The EU findings coincide with a recent policy document by the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), which suggest that if Irish agricultural emissions cannot be reduced, other sectors such as transport would be required to make “unrealistic” reductions.
According to the report's author, Joseph Curtin: "In this scenario the transport sector would be required to reduce its total emissions between 2020 and 2030 by at least 40 per cent if the agriculture sector cannot make a greater contribution to Ireland's carbon budget".
The IIEA analysis suggests that just focusing on technical fixes in agriculture is insufficient, and that the structure of Irish agriculture also needs to be looked at. “The heavy reliance on suckler beef systems in particular,” Mr Curtin said, “is neither economically nor environmentally sustainable in a post-milk quota and carbon-constrained world.”
“Saying that we have efficient beef systems is like saying that we have the most efficient coal plants in the EU, but ignoring that there are much more economically beneficial and sustainable ways to produce electricity,” he said.