Fundamental bargain of this Coalition is at issue in climate action talks

Ministers Ryan and McConalogue to discuss contribution of agriculture to greenhouse gas reductions

The meeting between Minister for Transport and Climate Action Eamon Ryan and Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue is, say insiders, unlikely today to reach a compromise on greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector. But they are hopeful that a deal can be hammered out in the coming days ahead of the final Cabinet meeting before the August break next week.

It will, say sources close to both sides of the negotiations, require both sides to take some degree of pain and therefore flak from their respective constituencies and stakeholders. But they should, just about, be able to live with it.

They had better hope they’re right. Because the issue at play in the tortuous negotiations, for all the mind-boggling complexity of the detail in working out how best to assess and measure greenhouse gas and climate emissions, is a simple one that goes to the very heart of the agreement which enabled this government to be formed in the first place.

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The Greens have to see meaningful progress towards reaching the climate action goals — specifically the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions — that are now set in law. That is the reason they are in Government.

For Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, however, those measures cannot be so demanding that they can’t take their natural constituencies with them. Farmers and others have to be able to live with it.

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The programme for government was constructed and agreed in the belief that these two goals could be satisfied. So far, that compact has held. But this will be its stiffest test and if it is not possible to find a common “landing ground” acceptable to both sides then the foundation stone of this Government is in trouble. There’s a lot riding on this.

At the heart of the issue is the contribution to the overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions that the agriculture sector should make. The overall reduction is 50 per cent by 2030. The range for agriculture has already been set at between 22-30 per cent, but sources on all sides agree that this is a wide range. There is a big difference between a 22 per cent reduction and a 30 per cent reduction.

In simple terms, if the agriculture reduction is at 22 per cent, or somewhere near it, it means that in order to comply with the law, other sectors have to take up the slack. Modelling by academics of UCC lays out the sort of options that policymakers face. If agriculture stays at 22 per cent, then the other sectors would have to increase their share of carbon reduction by amounts that challenge credibility. For example, if the transport sector was to take up the slack, it would be necessary to take all diesel vans off the road, or a further 500,000 cars.

But farmers insist that a 22 per cent reduction already pitches them at a level that will be difficult to achieve — anything more would be impossible, they say. “If it’s 30 per cent, that would just destroy a lot of farmers,” says one leading figure in the industry. The farmers also argue that at a time when food security is under threat, it is foolish to reduce food production.

The Greens say look at the world around you. Look at what’s happening. This is an emergency.

If there is a compromise to be done, it is probably to include the gains from future changes in land use — such as afforestation and rewetting — in the agricultural sector’s figure. That would still leave farmers facing big changes in how they farm over the coming years. But it might make the target less frightening. That is the path sources involved in the process see towards a compromise. It would not make everyone happy. But it might make them equally — and just about tolerably — unhappy.