A new way for Ireland to meet the climate change challenge

Opinion: Under EU legislation emissions from buildings, transport and agriculture must be cut by 20 per cent by 2020, the most challenging target among EU member states

‘The high dependence of Irish agriculture on emissions-intensive beef and dairy, and its potential of expand, places Ireland in a unique situation internationally.’ Photograph: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES

‘The high dependence of Irish agriculture on emissions-intensive beef and dairy, and its potential of expand, places Ireland in a unique situation internationally.’ Photograph: David Sleator/THE IRISH TIMES

 

One of the great challenges facing mankind over the next half century will be how to increase food production to meet the needs of a growing population while reducing the level of greenhouses gases and slowing the rate of global warming.

World population is projected to increase from its current seven billion to over nine billion by 2050. Food production will need to increase by 70 per cent, on a shrinking natural resource base of land and water. This challenge is made greater by climate change, which is changing weather patterns and growing seasons.

World leaders will take decisions on climate policy at two important meetings over the next 15 months. On September 23rd, a Climate Change Summit will take place at the UN in New York. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has convened the meeting to catalyse action by governments, business, finance and civil society to shift the world towards a low-carbon economy. In December 2015, governments will meet in Paris to take longer-term decisions on global targets and other actions to address climate change.

All governments, including the Irish government, will be required to state at these meetings what they are willing to do to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change.

The high dependence of Irish agriculture on emissions-intensive beef and dairy, and its potential to expand, places Ireland in a unique situation internationally. The Government is committed to a substantial increase in food production by 2020, in line with the proposals in Food Harvest 2020, with further growth expected to 2030 and beyond. Sustainable and carbon-efficient production of food is seen as a key element of Irish strategic competitiveness. Bord Bia’s Origin Green project is a world leader in requiring a sustainability audit, including carbon footprinting, for Irish food from farm to fork.

Emissions

Ireland has the most difficult policy environment of any country in the world for its agricultural emissions. Under EU legislation emissions from buildings, transport and agriculture must be cut by 20 per cent by 2020, the most challenging target among EU member states. Forty per cent of these emissions come from agriculture, three times the EU average.

Squaring this circle of increasing food production while reducing emissions will be very difficult. It will require active engagement in influencing policy at EU and international level, to take account of Ireland’s unique circumstances, while demonstrating through our actions and ideas that we are making a serious contribution to addressing climate change.

The United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Change is the international forum where climate change is discussed.

Amazingly, the agricultural sector has been excluded from the international negotiations on climate change, notwithstanding that it accounts for approximately 20 per cent of global carbon emissions when the impact of deforestation is included.

This omission may be about to change. There has been growing interest internationally in climate-smart agriculture (CSA), which is a way of looking at the synergies between increasing food security, building resilience to climate change and reducing emissions.

Last June, the African Union’s NEPAD Agency launched the Africa Climate-Smart Agriculture Alliance. It will focus on increasing CSA approaches across Africa to help 25 million farmers become more resilient and food-secure by 2025. The alliance involves 26 African governments, the UN, research organisations and five international NGOs, one of which is Concern Worldwide. Now a Global Alliance for Climate-Smart Agriculture, involving a broad range of stakeholders, including governments, is to be launched at the climate summit later this month.

This growing focus on CSA presents an opportunity for Ireland. The Government can present its climate change policy, at least in part, through a CSA framework. This will allow it to highlight Ireland’s carbon-efficient production of food. But if this focus is perceived as essentially a marketing tool for our food, we will have no credibility.

What is needed instead is a coherent Irish policy on climate change, backed up with credible national commitments. We need to have more Irish examples of successful policy frameworks, technologies and practices that promote carbon-efficient food production domestically, which can be transferred and scaled up internationally.

A certain percentage of the highly respected Irish development aid programme should focus on climate-smart agriculture. Linking with CGIAR, the global agricultural research organisation, lessons from the aid programme can contribute to future national and international policy on CSA. Furthermore, the Government should commit to be a policy champion for CSA in international forums.

Irish position

Framing a coherent Irish position will require considerable discussion involving Government, scientists, interest groups and civil society. The Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) is committed to playing a central role in this discussion. It is well placed to do so, having recently been ranked as the 24th most influential think tank globally on climate change policy and economics. The need for a credible Irish policy on climate change, for our own country and for what we can contribute to the wider international debate, is obvious and urgent. It would be great if Taoiseach Enda Kenny could begin the articulation of such a policy at the Climate Summit in New York on September 23rd.

Tom Arnold is director general of the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA). He will attend the Climate Summit in New York later this month. He is chairman of the Irish Times Trust and a member of the board of the Irish Times

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