Ireland has secured "more attainable greenhouse gas obligations" for the period up to 2030 thanks to recognition of the carbon stored in soils and forests.
These are included in new flexible arrangements agreed in Europe on farming and land use.
Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) environment committee chairman Thomas Cooney on Thursday welcomed the breakthrough, saying it was a pragmatic and more balanced outcome although it would still pose challenges for Ireland.
“We welcome the flexibilities secured which will allow carbon sequestered in soils and forestry to be taken into account for the first time.
“This sends a clear signal to Government to support IFA’s proposals and end all climate-mitigation roadblocks by delivering on the renewable energy and forestry development potential of Ireland’s agri-food sector,” he said.
Irish farmers are among those required to achieve a 30 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2030 compared with 2005, according to the new EU targets. Agriculture accounts for more than 30 per cent of current overall Irish GHG emissions, which include CO2 and methane and contribute to global warming.
Under new rules, Ireland can achieve up to 5.6 per cent of this through afforestation and improving crops and soil management, the second-highest degree of flexibility allowed to an EU member state. Another 4 per cent may come from “transfers from heavy industry”.
The deal, under EU “effort sharing regulation”, was agreed on December 21st and comes alongside changes to Europe’s emissions trading system. This leaves Ireland obliged to cut 20 per cent of emissions across farming, transport, buildings, waste and light industries.
Ireland's National Mitigation Plan, published early this year by Minister for Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten, aims to hold agricultural emissions at a steady level and to make more demanding cuts in the other sectors. This is to facilitate a significant increase in agricultural production under the Food Wise 2025 strategy.
“The difficulty in delivering the current 2020 target and now the 2030 emissions reductions target will continue for as long as sectors such as transport continue to spiral out of control, increasing emissions by over 130 per cent since 1990,” Mr Cooney said.
In contrast, “emissions from farming have declined by 3.5 per cent.”
The deal is provisional but is likely to be ratified in January at European Council level as it is seen by the European Commission as a major step towards fulfilling its Paris climate commitments.
Mr Cooney accepted Ireland faced substantial fines for missing 2020 emissions targets. It reiterated the IFA stance on the issue that the money likely to be involved should be immediately redirected into a climate activation programme. This should include a biomass development programme, which would displace electricity generated from peat and coal, he said.
“This would eliminate 64 per cent of greenhouse gases created when generating electricity.”
A re-opening of the Green, Low-Carbon, Agri-Environment Scheme (Glas) would reduce GHG emissions by an additional 65,000 tonnes each year, Mr Cooney said, while a “zero-carbon electricity tariff for community-based renewable [energy] projects” should be used over time to displace electricity production from gas, which accounts for 35 per cent of GHGs emitted when generating electricity.
In addition, he recommended that 20 per cent (€100 million) of the public service obligation (PSO) levy paid by homeowners be used to encourage homeowners and farm families to replace their fossil fuels with renewables sources such as rooftop solar and micro energy.
The scaling-up of on-farm emission reduction programmes identified in the National Mitigation Plan, “such as Smart Farming, Origin Green, and the Carbon Navigator”, should be fully adopted, Mr Cooney said.
A review by the Department of Agriculture’s forest services division of the new forestry programme and a commitment to remove all barriers was necessary “as planting is down 14 per cent year on year”, he added.