Analysis: Altered Coveney tune on climate reflects realpolitik

Agriculture comprises 30% emissions but is crucial part of economy, writes Harry McGee

Agriculture is a much bigger sector in Ireland than in most other EU countries. Greenhouse-gas emissions in agriculture make up about 30 per cent of all emissions and 45 per cent in the non-traded sector.

The cause of the emissions is almost comical if it were’t so serious. It is from ruminant animals such as cattle and sheep passing wind, either through burping or flatulation. When you realise the national herd runs into millions, the numbers stack up.

When in opposition, Simon Coveney was the person in Fine Gael who led the charge on climate change. But in Government, while still presenting to be progressive on this issue, he has argued that agriculture should be given a special dispensation.

Even with the best use of technology and research, and even if flexible measures like new afforestation are allowed to be included as offsets for agriculture, reductions in emissions will be relatively minor.


Cutting herds

For Government the nightmare scenario is cutting the national herd. That’s not a runner politically and other mainstream parties would support it in that regard. Indeed, the Government is hoping to increase agricultural output (and by corollary increase herd size) following the ending of quotas; and also to satisfy its


2020 programme.

If Ireland doesn’t meet its emissions targets, it faces fines potentially running into billions of euro. The indications are the Government will miss – by some margin – the onerous 2020 targets to reduce emissions by 20 per cent compared to 2005 levels. If it does not get some concessions in negotiations starting in Brussels next spring on the 2030 targets (of 40 per cent) it will face a formidable challenge.

As Minister, Coveney has argued that Irish agriculture, which is mainly pasture-based, is one of the most efficient and sustainable in the world. It is ranked joint first in the EU for dairy and fifth for beef. He says if Ireland is forced to cut production, that gap will be filled by beef and dairy produced by countries which are less sustainable.


There is a touch of St Augustine’s plea: “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.”

The ICMSA (Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association) argues Ireland should be designated as one of the centres in the world for dairy production but it too should spell out what it’s going to do to get its emissions down.

A recent analysis by Dr Peter Brennan and Denis Cagney of Public Policy Advisors Network says the farming sector could turn out to enjoy a "free ride" compared to other sectors under current policies.

Coveney’s argument of the folly of replacing sustainable production with wasteful production has some merit but Ireland can’t get a blanket exemption. One of the sensible suggestions put forward by Brennan and Cagney is for a senior minister to be appointed with responsibility for decarbonising society.

The dramatic call by An Taisce’s John Gibbons for the beef sector to be shut down and replaced by afforestation is not realistic. In any instance it is not a binary option. Afforestation receives subsidies too and there are land issues.

Agriculture needs to make meaningful sacrifices but it would be churlish to ask it to extinguish itself.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times