Politicians urged to ‘bite the bullet’ and reduce size of Irish livestock sector

Climate action committee told farmers have few technical options to cut methane emissions

The Government must publish a revised roadmap for agriculture emissions reductions "that sets out a time scale to achieve, as a minimum, compliance with EU and national law", the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee has been told.

"Existing measures proposed by Teagasc and Department of Agriculture's AgClimatise strategy are simply not enough," according to Sadhbh O'Neill of the Stop Climate Chaos group.

She said that agriculture accounts for 35 per cent of Ireland’s annual greenhouse gas emissions and “is the single largest contributor to Ireland’s climate-changing pollution”.

“Without an overarching policy framework for agriculture that drives emissions down the Government will not be able to meet its commitment to cut overall national emissions by 51 per cent by 2030,” she said.

The committee is examining how agri-food emissions can be cut in line with national targets for emission reductions by 2030.

“For the Government to allow one economic sector in society to simply continue business-as-usual, and insist the rest of the economy reduce its emissions by two-thirds to achieve the overall 51 per cent target for 2030 is highly unfair and impractical,” she said.

“The focus on cost efficiency is not working for the environment. It falsely assumes ‘efficient’ farms are environmentally sustainable farms. But merely maximising outputs from each unit of feed or fertiliser does not reduce climate emissions and environmental damage.”

Bite the bullet

Ms O’Neill said politicians needed to bite the bullet and recognise the livestock sector needs to be reduced and supports provided for farmers to embrace agroforestry, horticulture, tillage and low input or organic agriculture.

Prof Alan Matthews, a Trinity College Dublin agricultural economist, said reducing emissions hinges on "how we incentivise the changes" needed to meet demanding targets.

Currently, he said, “there are few technical and management options available to farmers to reduce methane emissions, which implies that a reduction in animal numbers will be necessary”. He said incentivising farmers to switch grassland to alternative land use was a realistic option.

The sector had to accept methane’s significant impacts, he said. “It is a powerful greenhouse gas. Its concentration in the atmosphere must be reduced if we are to achieve the Paris Agreement’s temperature target. But it does not have to be reduced to zero.”

Reverse global warming

Rising methane emissions add significantly to global warming but continued emissions at a broadly stable level would sustain rather than add to global warming that has already occurred. Sustained reductions in methane emissions, however, reverse global warming and cool the planet from existing levels, he said.

In response to Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore, Prof Matthews said emission reduction should be tied into reducing impacts on water and biodiversity with a message to farmers "you cannot just produce food and ignore environmental impacts".

He said that meant putting a price on negative outcomes and recognising herd numbers have to come down to prevent environmental damage.

Committee chairman Brian Leddin (Green Party) said the committee wished to protect farming and livelihoods in rural Ireland, but pointed to "a communications failure around the changes required".

Asked what a national dialogue on the issue might look like, Ms O’Neill noted a welcome action in the AgClimatise strategy involving stakeholders including scientists, the farming community and its representatives and environmental interests.

Up to now, environmental interests and environmental scientists encountered difficulties in terms of full involvement in the process.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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