Ways for Irish farmers to achieve major reductions in carbon emissions from agriculture, at a time of massive expansion, have been outlined in a long-awaited report from Teagasc.
With agricultural production likely to increase further, it will be “extremely challenging” for the sector to meet its emissions obligations, according to the State’s farm advisory agency.
The mitigation measures proposed by Teagasc include: genetic improvements to dairy and beef livestock, improved efficiency in nitrogen use by altering fertilisers applied to land, increased afforestation, improved sequestration (capturing carbon) in soils and enhanced production of biomass and biogas in a major shift away from fossil fuel use.
Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are set to increase over the coming decade, unless significant mitigation efforts are adopted.
Agriculture emissions are counted with those from transport and buildings. Together these sectors are collectively subject to legally binding targets, and if 2020 and 2030 targets are not met through domestic mitigation, the government would need to acquire credits, which are likely to be increasingly expensive over time.
Calculations from the Department of Finance and Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) suggest there will be a possible cost of €600 million per annum after 2020 if there is no change in policy. Much of this is down to continued agricultural expansion, according to climate expert Joseph Curtin of the IIEA.
Mr Curtin said he was “highly sceptical” that many of the technical and efficiency measures proposed would deliver actual emissions reductions that could be counted to meet Ireland’s targets. “In fact, total animal numbers and GHG emissions could increase as a result of these measures being implemented.”
Fossil fuel displacement
The report also includes “fossil fuel displacement” from using domestic biomass, but “this just double-counts emissions reductions arising in the building and power sector”, he said.
Agriculture is refusing to engage with the real question, he said: “Is its continued expansion compatible with Ireland’s climate objectives? Could we imagine a land use strategy which provides a sustainable income for farm families, that builds resilience to climate impacts, and which reduces greenhouse gas emissions?
“The current approach achieves none of these objectives and I see no signs whatsoever that the sector is willing to engage proactively with the climate agenda.”
While emissions from the sector have generally been on the decline since the late 1990s, recent growth in output, particularly in dairying, has seen emissions increase – a trend highlighted recently by the EPA.
Agriculture is the single biggest source of carbon, accounting for a third of Irish emissions, which contributes to global warming, mainly in the form of methane (emitted from livestock and manure) and nitrous oxide (from fertiliser and animal waste excretions on soils).