Farmers dismiss calls to reduce cattle herd as ‘flawed logic’

Greenhouse gas emissions from sector continue to rise alongside cattle numbers

‘Reducing the Irish suckler herd will result in an increase in global emissions,’ says the IFA’s president. Photograph: Alan Betson

‘Reducing the Irish suckler herd will result in an increase in global emissions,’ says the IFA’s president. Photograph: Alan Betson


Calls to significantly reduce Ireland’s cattle herd in order to meet 2030 carbon reduction targets have been dismissed as “flawed logic” by farmers.

In its latest report, the Climate Change Advisory Council notes that Ireland remains “completely off course” to meet its commitments on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it takes aim at agriculture in particular, noting that emissions from the sector have continued to rise alongside cattle numbers.

“The observed trend in the expansion of the national dairy herd has been the major contributor to increases in agricultural emissions in recent years,” it notes, adding that forthcoming reform of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) could be used to incentivise change in land use.

According to data set out by the the council, Irish agriculture accounts for 32 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, the largest of all sectors, compared with just 10 per cent in the EU overall.

Its report notes the “unique significance of the sector” in Ireland, with emissions steadily increasing 14 per cent since 2011, largely due to increasing dairy cow numbers.

However, in a typically robust response, the Irish Farmers’ Association stuck to its mantra that Ireland stands “among the most carbon-efficient” producers in the world and that calls for a reduction in the cattle herd were based on “flawed logic”.

Although the council has acknowledged the need to safeguard financial security for farmers when introducing changes, IFA president Joe Healy said its proposals took no account of economic or social consequences.

“Reducing the Irish suckler herd will result in an increase in global emissions, as beef would be produced in countries with less sustainable systems,” Mr Healy said. “The [council’s] recommendation will continue to fuel this climate destruction.”

Low awareness

Although agriculture remains the bane of carbon reduction advocates, the council’s report looks broadly at all sectors, as well as Ireland’s apparent lack of preparation for climate change effects already considered unavoidable.

Its chairman, economist John FitzGerald, said the country needed to prepare for the impacts of future heatwaves – particularly through building regulations – and flooding. “The impacts of climate change often seem distant from everyday life, but we have experienced several extreme weather events in recent years which have exposed the vulnerabilities of our society and economy,” he said. “Despite these events, awareness of the need for adaptation remains low.”

The recommendation for an increasing carbon tax was a predictable element of the report – the council believes it should be set at €35 per tonne of carbon dioxide in the next budget, rising to at least €80 by 2030.

In terms of retrofitting – the high-priority process of upgrading older homes and businesses to be more energy efficient – Mr FitzGerald said there was an “urgent need” to increase capacity and that local authorities should be used to set the pace with their housing stocks.

The council has also warned against the purchase of carbon emissions “allowances” from other countries as a means of addressing the problem, saying this approach simply delays investment in reducing emissions.

In response, Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton said that although the Government’s recently published Climate Action Plan focuses on emissions reductions, the council report is a “timely reminder that we must also ensure that appropriate consideration is given to embedding robust adaptation measures across the system”.

The Climate Change Advisory Council acknowledged the publication of the Action Plan but said it had not yet had time to fully evaluate its content.

However, it said the “continued failure to set out detailed pathways on the cost-effective route to decarbonising the Irish economy by 2050 is a major obstacle to progressing policy on climate change”.


Ireland is unlikely to achieve its 2020 and 2030 emissions targets, according to the Climate Change Advisory Council’s latest report, although it says the latest projections of future greenhouse gas emissions show a potential improvement in progress towards emissions reduction.

In 2017, total emissions of greenhouse gases increased by 1.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Economic growth continues to be the main driver.

Increases in emissions were recorded in the agriculture and industry sectors, while a “significant source” of emissions was also associated with wildfires across various land uses. Decreases in greenhouse gas were recorded in the energy generation, transport and built environment sectors.

However, as the Government grapples with failing efforts to decarbonise the country, the most recent decreases were, according to the council, “primarily due to external factors not related to climate and energy policy”.

The largest increase came in agriculture, with the report pointing to a rise in the number of dairy cows and in the use of fertiliser. A drop in the emissions from housing, meanwhile, was put down to less use of heating due to a mild winter.

Ireland cannot meet its 2020 carbon emissions reduction target – instead of the proposed 20 per cent drop below 2005 levels, it is likely to be closer to 5 per cent in a best-case scenario.