Analyst says climate plan incompatible with Government’s environmental policy

‘Ireland’s agricultural system, which relies on producing the most carbon-intensive foods, is highly unsustainable’

Ireland is the fourth highest per-capita emitter of methane from agriculture in the world, and emissions are 15%  higher since 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Ireland is the fourth highest per-capita emitter of methane from agriculture in the world, and emissions are 15% higher since 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Ag Climatise, the latest climate strategy unveiled by the Department of Agriculture, is not fit for purpose and not in line with the programme for government, according to sustainability analyst Dr Hannah Daly.

In a damning assessment the UCC-based expert says “agriculture policy is not consistent with climate policy”, while the “roadmap” is relying on unproven technologies to stabilise methane.

A specific methane-reduction target must inserted into the Climate Bill, she insists.

The all-party Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action in a report published on Friday concludes “a separate mandatory target for biogenic methane is strongly advised”.

In launching Ag Climatise the department said it was setting a pathway for “climate neutral” agriculture. “On the surface this seems deeply ambitious. But it clearly is not,” according to Dr Daly, who lectures on sustainable energy and works with MaREI energy institute.

She said it had to be put in the context of the sector being responsible for 35 per cent of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), and a “highly unsustainable” agricultural system.

“Cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a very strong global warming impact. Globally, methane from agriculture and fossil fuels has been responsible for the two-fifths of the 1 degree of global temperature rise that has already taken place as a result of human activities.”

Ireland is the fourth highest per-capita emitter of methane from agriculture in the world, and emissions are 15 per cent higher since 2011, driven by dairy output and abolition of milk quotas. The roadmap does not even reverse this recent rise in emissions, says Dr Daly.

“Ag Climatise seeks to merely stabilise methane emissions. In other words at some undefined point methane emissions are to stop growing further. Small net reductions in the sector’s overall emissions are planned by reducing emissions of nitrogen [associated with fertiliser use] – which is responsible for around a third of emissions from the sector – by around one fifth.”

The strategy is not only far from consistent with the programme for government target of halving overall greenhouse gases by 2030, “but appears to be actually less ambitious than the previous government’s climate action plan, which targets a 10 to 15 per cent reduction in emissions from agriculture by 2030”.

First step

In an emailed letter to Green Party members, Minister of State Pippa Hackett told them to disregard the strategy, describing it as only “the first step towards achieving those reductions, and you can be assured that the Green Party will continue to push for the stronger measures that are needed”.

Asked in a weekend Irish Times interview how will they get reductions in the biggest emitting sector without touching the national herd, party leader Eamon Ryan said the roadmap – launched earlier this month – was an old one and would be superseded next year by a plan that would result in a smaller national herd.

Dr Daly stressed to The Irish Times her analysis was to highlight inconsistency between agriculture policy and environmental policy, and not to point the finger of blame at farmers.

The roadmap accepts the need for long-term methane cuts, she acknowledges, but relies on innovations in breeding, technology and feed additives to achieve this rather than reducing production. “However, each dairy cow is now emitting 15 per cent more methane than in 1990, so it is not clear how these innovations will succeed.”

She warns that lack of ambition for emissions reductions in agriculture will mean other sectors, namely transport and heat, will have to compensate with more drastic emissions cuts. “Is it fair to push the extra burden from agriculture on to people to enable an expansion of beef and dairy exports?”

The department admits it is not consistent with the programme for government. But this had to be put in the context of a planned overall 7 per cent annual decline in emissions, says Dr Daly, which will be hugely challenging for many sectors, .

She says methane stabilisation is “problematic” since other GHGs would have to reduce by 12 to 13 per cent annually to make up for lack of mitigation in agriculture, while costs are inevitably imposed elsewhere.

This, she believed, begs the question: “Why publish a wholly inadequate strategy for the agriculture sector which tells farmers that technological fixes will be enough to make their sector climate neutral?”

Her analysis cites the 2020 annual review from the Climate Change Advisory Council which highlighted “increasing beef and dairy production would not benefit Irish society when we take into account the resulting pollution”, while the EPA’s recent “State of the Environment” report had detailed huge environmental pressures arising from agriculture.

Moreover, the council “believes the risk of carbon leakage does not vindicate our strategy for agriculture, even though it is commonly used to justify continued expansion”.

Carbon leakage refers to scenarios where for reasons of costs related to climate policies, businesses transfer production to other countries with laxer emission constraints. This could lead to an increase in their total emissions, she confirmed, especially when the science suggesting Ireland is among countries with the lowest carbon footprint in beef and dairying is very old data.

A 2010 study found Irish dairying had the joint-lowest carbon footprint for dairy and the fifth lowest footprint for beef – modelled on 2004 data.

Pledges and targets

Dr Daly says the latest UN Environment Programme’s Gap Report’s findings on global progress on tackling climate change are bleak. Despite many countries making ambitious pledges and targets for the distant future, emissions continue to rise.

“The savings we will see in 2020 from the Covid-19 pandemic will be negligible to the climate. If Ireland really wants to pursue an ambitious climate target and meaningfully transform into a sustainable society, we need to move away from long-term pledges and start making realistic and truly transformative actions across all sectors.”

She says a newly-proposed accounting metric for emissions known as GWP* is being used to claim that stabilised methane emissions are “climate neutral”, but there is no global scientific or political consensus that this is the correct interpretation. The system underestimates methane impacts in a scenario where levels are rising – as is the case in Ireland.

“There are no easy solutions or get-out-of-jail free cards. Ireland’s agricultural system, which relies on producing the most carbon-intensive foods, is highly unsustainable.”

To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement deep cuts in global methane emissions are required, “which will likely require making diets more sustainable as well as transforming food production systems”.

New Zealand, which has the highest per-capita emissions of methane from agriculture, has acknowledged this by setting a target for methane into law, requiring a 10 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 and 24 to 47 per cent cut by 2050, along with a “net zero” target for CO2.

Dr Daly says setting an Irish methane target would send a big signal internationally. “If Ireland truly wants to do its part to tackle climate change we need to do the same and set a clear target for reducing methane emissions into the new Climate Bill.”