Agriculture sector ‘not waiting for silver bullet’ to cut carbon emissions

Range of measures and new feeds helping farmers address climate responsibilities, Oireachtas hears

The farming sector is not holding out for “a silver bullet that is going to come” to help it address climate responsibilities, according to Department of Agriculture chief inspector Bill Callinan.

Speaking at the Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Action on Tuesday, he rejected a suggestion from People Before Profit Deputy Bríd Smith that agriculture was over-relying on yet-to-be-proven feeds, including seaweed, and the emergence of new technologies to help it deliver on its climate change responsibilities.

A wide range of farm-level measures are being implemented, including a range of potential new feeds to reduce emissions in cattle, Mr Callinan told the committee which is examining the carbon ceilings to be applied for the forthcoming five-year carbon budget, due to be finalised by the Government in coming weeks.

A wide-ranging set of measures would introduce significant change in the approach to farming across 140,000 family farms, he said. It prioritised early action within the first five-year carbon budget on reducing nitrous oxide emissions mainly associated with use of chemical nitrogen fertilisers, earlier slaughter of animals and changing breeding practices.

There were, however, “significant challenges around the reduction of methane within our pasture-based livestock production system”, Mr Callinan said. Major reductions were necessary but there was international acceptance they did not have to go to zero, he noted.

With the 2021 Climate Action Plan setting in law the target of a 22-30 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, Ms Smith asked if the higher level of reduction was “desirable and necessary” and required a reduction in the size of the national herd.

Seven million animals

Mr Callinan said setting the ceiling was a matter for Government, but a pathway for specific emissions reductions, which he believed could be achieved, had been set out. Other countries as well as Ireland were finding it challenging to assess the appropriate level of ambition. But he had no doubt Ireland would become an international leader in decarbonising pasture-based farming.

The plan identified a series of core and further measures that could deliver “a landing point at the upper end of the range assigned”, while remaining within the context of a broadly stable herd of approximately seven million animals, he said.

Ms Smith believed there was a dodging of the decision on cutting the herd, as the prime focus was on exporting vast amounts of farm produce when “the system is broken for most farmers, and it’s broken for the environment”.

On media reports of tensions within the Coalition on setting the agriculture figure – which suggested Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were pushing for the lower figure – Marc Kierans, principal officer with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, said he did not wish to comment.

There was healthy tensions in ongoing discussions which were “honest and frank”, he said. Decarbonisation pathways in the climate plan were not absolute, he added. They had to be flexible; some would deliver early, while some would evolve over time.

If they did not deliver, however, there would have to be alternative measures put in place – and this applied to all sectors, he confirmed.

With a range of 42-50 per cent to be delivered in transport, principal officer John Martin said his department and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan were committed to delivering to the maximum end of this range despite the scale of the challenge involved for the sector and society.

But there would also be huge benefits to be derived “in terms of quality of life as well as carbon abatement”.

Travel behaviour

The difficulty arose from the scale and level of personal and systems transformation required, “to shift from settlement patterns and travel behaviour which have been embedded over decades, and which are dominated by car use”.

He denied that switching to electric vehicles (EVs) was the only game in town; electrification was being applied to public transport, and active travel – walking and cycling – was being scaled up in urban areas, though a modal shift was required, especially for short journeys of less than 2km.

While EVs were the single biggest element in the decarbonisation plan, the majority of emissions reductions would come from electrification of the taxi fleet, buses, rail and trams – and greater use of biofuels, his colleague, Aoife O’Grady, told the committee.

Mr Martin acknowledged a recent EPA report which found current measures for transport were projected to deliver a 39 per cent reduction in emissions, falling short of its 51 per cent abatement ambition, and that “further immediate and deep action is required”.

It was seeking to identify additional measures, while recognising the need to ensure fairness and equity on impacts. These included reducing the “kilometres travelled” by internal combustion engine vehicles, a focus on rural transport, supporting decarbonisation of freight, and possible regulatory and financial or taxation measures.

A greater level of emissions abatement would be achieved in the second carbon budget period from 2026-2030, he predicted.

The transport trajectory, however, needed to align with likely take-up in electric and other alternative technology, ramping up of transitionary biofuels and renewable fuel, and the longer lead-in times for rollout of additional infrastructure and services. “Critically, it needs to recognise the level of behavioural and systems change that will be required,” he said.

“Introduction of sectoral ceilings will present real and immediate challenges for the transport sector – a sector which impacts directly on the lives of all our citizens. As such, the level of transformation needed will require strong buy-in at a political and at a citizen level as we seek to accelerate delivery,” Mr Martin warned.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times