Consumption-based carbon taxes best way forward, economist Colm McCarthy says

Think tank examines future of dairying and agriculture’s role in tackling climate change

Universal consumption-based carbon taxes would be much more successful in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, according to UCD economist Colm McCarthy.

Climate targets based on territorial, production-based targets for reducing emissions in place over the past 20 years had failed, he said.

Mr McCarthy was speaking at a think tank gathering in Dublin hosted by the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association to examine the future of dairying and agriculture’s role in tackling climate change.

An “extraterrestrial coloniser” on discovering the Earth would conclude it’s in poor condition, and having 200 countries with 200 different climate policies and 200 distinct territorial targets to reduce emissions was not the way to make progress, Mr McCarthy said.


They would say, he believed, “this planet has only one atmosphere” so a uniform policy should apply backed by carbon taxes on carbon-polluting goods and services.

These, after all, were being successfully applied in relation to some fossil fuels, Mr McCarthy said, as opposed to complex, hodgepodge climate targets in the EU. While Europe was taking its targets seriously, he believed, climate "policy worldwide is going to change because it's failing".

This would be driven by factors such as people being obsessed about air miles and the composition of their diet, he added, and translate into demands for political action.

He believed the EU was changing, with indications an aviation tax may be introduced. With no tax on kerosene fuel or on flight tickets, “the sector has led a charmed life”.

He cited the case of flying from the south of Spain to Dublin last year for €27, when his taxi to Ballsbridge cost €29. "It's possible for things to be too cheap."

Meat consumption

He believed a combination of the EU, "post-Trump US" and China, would take the lead as 200 countries gathering in Paris does not work. He did not think Ireland had much to fear from extensive consumer carbon taxes.

On Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying he was going to reduce consumption of steak, Mr McCarthy said at 41 or 42 years of age, he would probably keep eating it. “If he was 21, I would not be so sure.”

The impression he got from 21-year-olds is they already have a different attitude; they are drifting away from animal products.

“I think the [agrifood] industry needs to think carefully about that.”

Moves to reduce carbon emissions associated with Irish farming is tinkering around the edges when livestock numbers were not being addressed, said dairy farmer Donal Sheehan from Castlelyons, Co Cork, a lead participant in the BRIDE (biodiversity regeneration in a dairying environment) project.

“Stocking rate is the elephant in the room,” he added. It had led to high nitrogen inputs on land which was reducing biodiversity and leading to monoculture; “only one species in a field”. Stocking rates were too high, not sustainable and also causing water quality problems.

Prof Gary Lanigan of Teagasc said stock rates are "the economic reality" on the ground. He accepted they may be too high in some circumstances. The Teagasc plan to address emission issues was not tinkering around the edges, he insisted but required a sea change in Irish farming.

Improved breeding and changes in fertiliser use would have a big impact in reducing emissions associated with dairying, Prof Lanigan said, but these would not deliver “in an unconstrained environment”.

Carbon capture

EPA emissions mitigation specialist Philip O’Brien confirmed agriculture emissions have decreased since 1990, from 37 per cent to 33 per cent, based on overall Irish emissions. But this was due to a 200 per cent increase in transport emissions.

At present, emissions from farming – methane from cattle and nitrous oxides from fertiliser use (which causes air pollution) – were going in the wrong direction, and increasing at a rate unseen in 20 years.

The EU was looking at ratcheting up decarbonisation under the Paris Agreement by increasing the key target from 40 per cent to 55 per cent reduction of emissions by 2030 (compared to 2005), he said. He hoped efforts initially would be concentrated on CO2 and fossil fuel use before going on to look at other gases and agriculture, because there would be a continuing need for food production.

A rethink on land use, taking into account its ability to capture carbon, would make a major impact but “this is not a get out of jail card”.

Increased afforestation, changing crops and rewetting of peatlands all had to play their part – as well as retaining what carbon there is in soil, said Dr Ken Byrne of UL School of Natural Sciences.

Dr Dario Fornana of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute in Belfast said replenishing of soils is key to maintaining the ability of land to capture carbon and even increase retention of greenhouses gases. This depended on climate, soil type and grassland management.

Improving biodiversity by adding legumes and herbs to traditional grasslands improves carbon capture, he confirmed. There should be policy mechanisms to reward farmers for promoting social carbon capture and good soil health. Techniques to improve grasslands’ ability to capture carbon, however, were “poorly known” while there was need for better monitoring and verification of performance in that regard.

National climate targets for agriculture were hugely challenging, ICMSA president Pat McCormack said, while at the same time there was a need to ensure farming – “the main driver in 25 counties” – continued to prosper within “the vital rural economy”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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