Agriculture is cutting its emissions but more momentum needed, conference told

‘My fear is the national narrative is making climate change to the 95 per cent of people who are not in agriculture somebody else’s problem,’ climatologist Peter Thorne says

The agriculture sector can deliver its carbon emissions targets but new feed options and better fertilisers must be made widely available to enable farmers do their bit, according to the chair of Climate Change Advisory Council Marie Donnelly.

Three measures could deliver almost 50 per cent of reductions required by 2030 – a switch to protected urea as fertiliser, using a new feed to reduce emissions when livestock are kept indoors and diversification – she told a conference on climate change hosted by the Department of Agriculture on Wednesday.

The sector has to reduce its emissions – mainly methane – by 25 per cent before the end of the decade.

In spite of their proven ability to reduce emissions, Ms Donnelly highlighted availability issues. The feed could reduce methane by 5 per cent for the four months of the year that cattle were indoors, but she added: “Is it available? Is it in stock?”


Similarly, there were diversification options but they needed to be presented and made available to farmers. Biomethane produced from farm wastes was widespread in Europe but a policy on that renewable fuel was overdue “and we still don’t have an industry in Ireland”, when it could provide 10 per cent of energy sector needs.

There was a need to review “how we reward sustainability”, Ms Donnelly said, as failure to act would lead to Irish food products being displaced in the marketplace.

Maynooth University climatologist Prof Peter Thorne said carbon dioxide was “the big boy” and should be the prime focus in moving to net zero emissions, as this was critical to stabilising the global climate. Methane levels needed to be reduced but do not have to reach net zero, he told the conference at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium.

“Think of carbon dioxide as running your bath with the plug-in – so long as the tap is running at all, it’s continuing to accumulate. Methane, on the other hand, is plug half out. It matters how fast you’re turning the tap on or off,” he explained.

The national conversation on climate invariably turns quickly to agriculture emissions, he said. “My fear here is the national narrative is making climate change to the 95 per cent of people who are not in agriculture somebody else’s problem.

“The fundamental problem truth is we need to reach net zero CO2. It’s everyone’s problem. It’s every sector’s problem. We need to rebalance the conversation. Agricultural emissions are important and need to reduce. But we need to be talking about transport, the built environment, all these other sectors which are far more heavy on CO2 emissions,” Prof Thorne added.

EPA director general Laura Burke said reduced fertiliser use in 2022 led to a small reduction in agricultural emissions but this trend needed to be sustained. Half of Ireland’s legally-binding carbon budget for 2021-2025 was already used up, which now meant Ireland’s overall emissions should reduce by 12.4 per cent every year with agriculture reducing by 8 per cent a year, which was “a huge challenge”.

There was a particular problem with emissions from land use, land use change and forestry, she said, which were a source of emissions, with not enough replacement of forestry – the current planting target was 8,000 hectares per year and was only at 2,500 hectares.

She was hopeful new approaches to farming could bring about a transformation of the sector, but momentum was required in applying Teagasc’s roadmap, known as the MACC, on the ground. “We have to increase the pace of delivery and change the narrative beyond reduced incomes.”

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue said he was confident progress on emissions would be built on this year because of the reduced use of traditional fertilisers and stabilisation of the national herd. When combined with breeding programmes and better grassland management, it would help build up momentum for years ahead, he said.

“A more sustainable agri-food system will require the right policy environment, investment in science and innovation, diversifying our systems of production and land use, and coming together in a collective spirit of determination to contribute our fair share in the fight against climate change,” he added.

This would “create a future where food security is ensured, ecosystems are preserved, and the wellbeing of current and future generations is safeguarded”.

Minister of State for Land Use Senator Pippa Hackett highlighted the range of options now open to landowners to plant trees. “Whether through the Organic Farming Scheme or the new forestry programme, there are really attractive financial options for farmers to deliver on climate in a way that can complement their existing systems and boost their income,” she said.

While it was no secret that planting targets were not being hit, recent difficulties arising from a European Court case had led to changes in how licences were being issued and a backlog in appeals had been cleared, she added.

There was a lot of renewed interest in forestry including among farmers while there was a growing emphasis on planting broadleaved and native species.

The conference heard updates on how Irish agriculture and food is adapting to climate change and deploying new approaches to breeding and a range of feed additives; enhancing soil and pasture management to reduce nitrous oxide and increase carbon sequestration, while also considering the potential role of a diversified agriculture and land use sector in reducing and offsetting emissions.

In a video message Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the 25 per cent cut in emissions targeted for 2030 was a significant challenge, especially in rethinking how we use lands.

“I don’t underestimate what it’s asking of the sector. However, I know farmers and those working in the sector can and will rise to this challenge. It is in the interests of the Irish agriculture and food industry to be at the centre of a decade of change, shaping it and driving it to achieve a more sustainable food production sector.”

“Acting with resolve on climate change will be good for Ireland, good for Irish agriculture and good for Irish farmers. We all have a part to play and must work together in finding the best way forward,” he added.

Recent flooding events had indicated Ireland was far from immune when it came to extreme weather events; “we cannot wish this away and say it will not affect us”, Mr Varadkar said. While climate change was a different matter, adaptation was largely within our control.

How land was managed, required adapting “to prevent flooding happening again and again”, while the whole of Irish society would have to end reliance on fossil fuels, he said. All this required more dialogue between government, the science community, farmers and other stakeholders in building consensus on where we are going.

Minister of State for Agriculture with special responsibility for research and innovation, Martin Heydon announced awards of over €3.8 million for researchers in four climate and agriculture research projects commissioned in collaboration with New Zealand.

The projects including “inventory refinement” from pasture-based farming systems, peatland soil modelling to enhance carbon sequestration, soil sensor development for near real-time organic carbon monitoring for climate action by farmers, and nitrous oxide emission reduction in mixed pastures.

Mr Heydon said a further €20 million in new research funding arising from a research call would be announced shortly with 44 per cent of this going toward climate research.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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