More than 90 countries including Ireland have backed a global pledge to cut 30 per cent of methane emissions by 2030 in one of the most significant outcomes of the UN Cop26 summit so far.
Signatory countries representing more than two-thirds of the global economy backed a joint US-EU initiative. Several major carbon emitters such as China, India, Australia and Russia declined to join the pact, though Brazil has done.
Cutting methane emissions is regarded as one the main – and quickest – ways that governments can keep alive the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Although it breaks down relatively quickly in the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas is much more potent that CO2.
"We cannot wait for 2050, we have to cut emissions fast," said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who added that reducing methane levels was "the lowest-hanging fruit" among the options available to make a major impact.
In spite of sustained criticism from the agriculture sector, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said Ireland had no choice but to act to ensure it met its climate goals and that all sectors would be impacted including farming.
Speaking to journalists in Glasgow, he pointed out that countries had "different mixes" of methane – arising from fossil fuels, waste and agriculture – but each would contribute to meeting the 30 per cent target.
He said the approach would be to keep livestock numbers stable and that he hoped farmers would have better incomes from their efforts to protect biodiversity. Mr Martin said Ireland's high level of carbon efficiency through its pasture-based system should be taken into account.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane is responsible for about half of the 1.1 degree rise in global average temperature since the pre-industrial era. It said action to rapidly cut methane levels is the clearest opportunity humanity has to reduce the amount of warming the Earth will experience in the next 20 years.
Agriculture is responsible for 37 per cent of Irish emissions, according to the latest Environmental Protection Agency data, while 80 per cent of emissions from farming are related to methane.
Responding to the announcement, People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith said Ireland signing a global pledge to cut methane emissions “was a poor attempt at spin” as this would not be a national pledge to a 30 per cent reduction.
The Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) president Pat McCormack rejected suggestions that the methane pledge meant the writing was on the wall for further intensification of Irish agriculture, especially cattle numbers. However, he said that curbs mooted under the carbon budget threatened farming, which is “the back bone of the rural economy”.
IFA president Tim Cullinan said he found it extraordinary that Mr Martin had dismissed an independent report by KPMG into the impact of mooted emissions ceilings on farming as scaremongering. He said the Government had not done an economic impact assessment of its own.
The study, commissioned by the Irish Farmers Journal, concluded that a 21 per cent cut to agriculture emissions would result in 10,000 job losses, while a 30 per cent reduction would result in 56,000 job losses and reduced annual output of nearly €4 billion.
“Micheál Martin is shooting in the dark and he has no idea what the economic or social impact of these ceilings will be in rural areas,” he added.
Sarah Smith of the Clean Air Task Force, a not-for-profit which helps countries and industry to cut methane pollution, said the pledge was "shaping up to be a major breakthrough" which could "help keep the planet from passing irreversible climate tipping points".
“For too long this potent super pollutant has fallen off the agenda at major climate summits while its emissions have risen to all-time highs, pushing our planet closer to potentially irreversible tipping points,” she said.