Taoiseach Enda Kenny has claimed the EU agriculture greenhouse emissions target for Ireland are "unrealistic" and has blamed a "lost decade" of recession caused by the previous government.
Speaking to reporters at the COP21 global summit on climate change in Paris, the Taoiseach singled out Irish agriculture, making a special case for it, which he said was being asked to meet unreachable targets.
He said Ireland was serous in its response to global warming and denied the State was seeking “wiggle room” on the vital sector of agriculture.
When the EU Commission set the 2020 targets for the Union, based on 2005 emissions levels, it overestimated what agriculture could achieve in terms of curbing emissions, he said.
Speaking before he addressed the Summit on World leaders' day, Mr Kenny argued the targets for Ireland needed to be fair and sustainable.
“What we want is an understanding that we are serious about achieving fair and sustainable targets but we need space in order to achieve that,” he said.
Asked did Ireland lack ambition because it was making a special case for agriculture, he replied: “What we have to have is plenty of ambition but one that is tempered with reality.
“Ireland was not in a position over the lost and last decade to plan for the future in the way we would like.”
Agriculture comprises almost 30 per cent of all Irish emissions and nearly 45 per cent of non-traded emissions. Mr Kenny said Ireland and only two other countries faced similar problems from high emissions from ruminant animals: New Zealand and Uruguay.
He accepted Ireland faced a huge challenge in meeting EU targets when agriculture formed such a large part of the economy.
It also comes at a time when the Government intends to grow Irish agriculture following the abolition of milk quotas.
“We do not want to see a situation where we are limited in what we can produce with the abolition of quotas to find that food produced in countries with inferior standards and higher emission levels.”
Setting out what Ireland would be seeking, Mr Kenny said that the recession had resulted in Ireland not being in a position to invest in climate change mitigation and research.
“We lost a decade in the country because of what happened that cannot be recovered,” he said.
“Until we have an economic engine that will enable us to change structures - and to invest in research and innovation to invest in more sustainable ways of doing agriculture -it presents us with a challenge.”
Given the scale of the Paris summit, Mr Kenny said he detected there was at last a seriousness about setting out a road map for the future.
He said climate change legislation would complete its passage through the Oireachtas this term and the Government had also agreed to increase public finance for the green climate fund in 2016, and also to the fund for the least developed country.
Mr Kenny said he had spoken to several other European leaders at the summit about the agriculture challenge, including the Danish prime minster Lars Løkke Rasmussen.
He said if the EU proceeded to set 2030 targets based on 2020 targets it would provide “a real challenge”.
“As our economy and technology improves and smarter ways of doing production, we will have a stronger economy being able to make the changes after 2020.”
He rejected the suggestion he was arguing Ireland was not rich enough yet but said Ireland’s approach was ambitious but realistic.
Mr Kenny has delivered his speech to the conference, the full text of which can be read here.