On climate change, the best may be the enemy of the good

Instead of continuing to fight the battle over agricultural emissions, it’s time to take real action to realise the targeted reduction.

It has taken a year from the enactment of the target of halving our greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to reach the end-July agreement on targets for reductions by individual sectors. This Government has taken climate change seriously, and has devoted a large amount of time to driving the initial legislation and, more recently, to discussing these sectoral targets. However, the Government and Oireachtas have given much less attention to implementing the policies to actually reduce emissions.

The target of halving emissions by 2030 is very demanding. The hard-fought sectoral targets in aggregate fall short of reaching this goal, as the Climate Change Advisory Council has pointed out.

Obviously this is a disappointment for those of us who care deeply about climate change. Bringing farm emissions down by just a quarter means other sectors, such as energy, face an impossible target if total emissions are to be halved by 2030.

However, if we are to go anywhere near meeting our target reduction in emissions we need to turn to actually doing something about the problem rather than continuing to debate the size of the targets. Otherwise, there is a serious danger that the best could be the enemy of the good, with a continued focus on the targets distracting from delivering the concrete measures to rapidly reduce our emissions.


One of the successes of the Government has been its firm commitment to raising carbon taxes to drive real reductions in emissions, despite the unfavourable inflationary background. Increases in carbon taxes tell us all that investing in reducing emissions will be increasingly profitable. However, carbon taxes, while an essential basis for success, need to be supplemented with a suite of other policies if we are to succeed.

If the carbon tax was to be the only instrument to drive change, it would need to be set at €500 a tonne of carbon, not the current €41, to reach our emissions goals.

The next budget needs to continue the programme of steady increases in carbon tax. In addition, it should substantially increase the cost of owning and using fossil-fuel cars.

It’s not sustainable to depend on carrots alone to incentivise purchase of electric vehicles. The Danish government has already abolished its own subsidy regime for such cars. Introducing congestion charges in our main cities would incentivise a switch to public transport, with fewer emissions, less traffic and faster journey times.

The Government has developed significant policies to support households to retrofit their homes. But delivery on the scale needed is going to be very challenging, given the booming demand for builders, who are in short supply. A whole range of actions is required to make this a success, beginning with expansion of training programmes to increase the numbers of skilled workers. The development, already under way, of ‘one-stop shops’ to manage the work for householders is a critical piece of the jigsaw.

Producing cement is an emissions-heavy process, with limited scope to make it greener. Instead, priority should be given to substituting timber-based building technologies for concrete and cement-based construction. To date there is little sign that such a change is being driven by policy.

Agriculture has proved the most controversial sectoral target. However, instead of continuing to fight that battle, it’s time to take real action to realise the targeted reduction.

Rather than focusing solely on methane, we should concentrate more on reducing emissions of another greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide (N2²O), much of which comes from fertiliser use. Multi-species swards, that fix more nitrogen in the soil, can reduce the need for fertilisers. Fewer nitrates are also better for our waterways.

As N2O lives for a very long period in the atmosphere, while methane tends to dissipate rapidly, concentrating on reducing N₂O makes sense. Future technical developments on animal feed mixes may permit a major reduction in methane emissions, enabling us to make up lost ground after 2030.

A major programme to reduce agricultural emissions of N₂O would also probably result in reduced stocking rates, which would indirectly affect methane emissions. We should be encouraging beef farmers, who currently have minimal returns, to substitute some forestry.

Replacing the need for licences to plant and harvest trees with a suitable regulatory regime could unlock huge potential for farmers to reduce greenhouse gases, while still earning a decent living. Unlike many other necessary climate actions, unblocking the licensing obstacles to planting trees is wholly within the Government’s control. It could be an easy win, actually raising incomes while sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.