Farmers being deterred from moving into forestry, conference told

Changes required to address climate change can still be ‘huge win for landowners’

Prof John Fitzgerald said licensing requirements  make it hard for farmers to switch to forestry. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

Prof John Fitzgerald said licensing requirements make it hard for farmers to switch to forestry. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times

 

The existence of excessive amounts of red tape that makes it “impossible” for farmers to easily switch from growing crops or farming cattle to planting trees has been described as “the single biggest failure” of the Government.

Trinity College economics professor John Fitzgerald, a member of the Climate Change Advisory Council, told the online Magill Summer School on Thursday that farmers would have no choice but to reduce agriculture emissions by a third over the next decade, during which the size of the Irish herd would be significantly reduced.

However, he stressed there could still be a “huge win for landowners” through a recalibration of some of the central pillars of Irish farming.

Prof Fitzgerald said moves into forestry, which could take 100 million-200 million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere by 2050, would be a major benefit.

However, he pointed to licensing requirements that make it hard for farmers to switch.

“The single biggest failure of this government is that they haven’t abolished the licensing system for forestry. You can move from barley to wheat and provided you comply with the regulations nobody is going to say ‘boo’ but if you want to move from barley into trees, you’ve got to go into a legal process which is impossible for farmers,” he said.

Not only did the rules stop farmers planting forests that would take carbon out of the atmosphere, he said, they were also “preventing farmers from actually taking a profitable opportunity”.

The session also heard that the narrative around the climate crisis would have to be reshaped in Ireland if more people were to become advocates for tackling the challenges in a meaningful way.

Dr Tara Shine, director of Change by Degrees and an environment and development consultant, said farmers would do well to look at measures aimed at tackling climate change from a perspective of self-interest.

‘Direct impacts’

She pointed out that “agriculture is the most exposed sector to climate impacts… extreme weather has direct impacts on farming so even if you take the emissions factor out of this, farming is going to have to change and it’s going to have to diversify in order to be more resilient to the impacts of climate change”.

More broadly, she suggested there would have to be less emphasis on the “sacrifices” people will have to make and more acceptance of the reality that “the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action”.

She said key players in shaping the debate would have to “communicate better to make our citizens more willing to be part of this collective effort” and to convey the message that “hanging around and doing nothing and waiting for a climate catastrophe is going to hurt humanity and cost us a lot more” than taking action.

She urged people to think of the crisis “in the spirit of enlightened self-interest, where we are literally going to act now to protect and preserve our own species”.

Addressing the same session Prof Peter Thorn of the Icarus Climate Research Centre in NUI Maynooth said the media also had a role in reshaping the conversation around the climate crisis. It is, he said, “not just as a story that happens when it’s very hot, very wet, or very dry, either here or somewhere in the world”. He said that climate should be embedded in multiple facets of reporting so that “the implications of our choices on climate are made clear to people”.