Ireland still appears delinquent on climate action

Deadline for agreeing sectoral emission ceilings missed as farmers pitted against rest of society

Early summer 2022 has thus far been characterised by a series of record heatwaves around the world which have reminded us that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events continue to be increased by the damage we are doing to the atmosphere. Temperatures of about 50 degrees, which were reached in India and Iran in May, or nearer home the values over 40 degrees from France and Spain a few weeks ago, are difficult for us to imagine in an Ireland where the thermometer has not reached 33 degrees in well over a century of observations. But advances in climate science enable us now to estimate the climate change fingerprint in some extremes, and the results are alarming. The verdict from extreme heatwaves confirms that we have made such extremes 10-100 times more likely to occur today than they would have before we started pumping greenhouse gases on an industrial scale into the atmosphere.

Viewing the climate emergency in this context emphasises the urgency of taking radical action backed up by legislation to reduce emissions in the short term. In May, Ireland’s first carbon budget programme was approved by the Government and adopted by both Houses of the Oireachtas. This provided for a ceiling of 295 million tonnes of carbon emissions over the period 2021-2025. Dividing up this emissions cake among the various sectors such as transport, agriculture, waste, households etc, is now a contest among Government departments. Action 6 (of 492) in the 2021 Climate Action Plan specified that the sectoral ceilings would be finalised by the end of June. That this hasn’t occurred speaks volumes for the internal resistance in the departmental silos as they seek to provide excuses why the burden of reductions should fall elsewhere. But the time for excuses is over. The era of denialism, finger-pointing, aspirations and untried future silver bullets is over. It is now time to face up to the challenge by shouldering the responsibility resulting from each sector’s contribution to the problem.

The headline bout is undoubtedly between agriculture and transport, the two sectors currently projecting increases in emissions under the policy measures now operative.

Ireland’s 135,000 farms produce 37 per cent of national emissions. The biggest agricultural polluters are intensive dairy farms. Teagasc estimates that the average dairy farm income last year was €94,000 with over two-thirds of all Irish farms being debt-free and about half of farm households having an additional off-farm income stream.

Equity issues

For transport, approximately 1.4 million Irish households have at least one car. Some 2.2 million vehicles are currently responsible for 18 per cent of emissions. Average household income in 2020 was €52,941 and over half of Irish households carry some form of debt.

These comparisons would imply that, on equity considerations, the bulk of the emissions reductions required by the carbon budget should not fall on the ordinary householder or car owner. Yet this is precisely what is being intended in order to protect the “special economic and social role of agriculture”, specified in the legislation.

The Climate Act requires a national reduction in emissions by 2030 of 51 per cent. The EU Climate Law will require a similar scale of reduction following the agreement reached at the Environment Council this week. Yet judging by recent comments from farm organisations and Department of Agriculture officials, the agricultural sector considers an emissions ceiling reduction of even 22 per cent problematical. It is, however, clear that to make up for the time lost over the past two years all sectors will be required by the strictures of the carbon budget to meet their maximum indicative reduction values.

But what does such a reduction of less than 30 per cent for agriculture mean for the rest of society? It means the rest of society will have to bear approximately a 70 per cent reduction. It is manifestly unfair that 1.4 million households should be required to reduce their transport, energy and waste-emissions by 60 per cent to facilitate a 20-30 per cent reduction from 135,000 farms. Of course it is difficult to reduce emissions from Ireland’s 7.3 million cattle. But the dairy herd has increased by almost half in the past 10 years and an obvious remedy is to restore numbers to what they were at the beginning of the last decade. This is the only practical option in the short term and must be accompanied by appropriate supports to enable a Just Transition to be achieved. Imaginative schemes involving seaweed, additives, alternative metrics for methane etc may offer limited opportunities in the medium term, but they will not deliver equitable reductions over the next three years of the current carbon budget. As the director of the Environmental Planning Agency, Laura Burke, says: “Pending evidence and implementation of effective solutions to ongoing unsustainable air and water emissions, any plans for further intensification, or further expansion, of the dairy herd would be difficult to sustain.” Reduced cattle numbers would also help tackle the highly climate-toxic gas methane which requires immediate and sustained reductions if a serious intention to tackle Ireland’s international obligations exists.

It is also important to recognise the culture change that the Climate Act introduces. We do not have targets any more. We have legally binding emission ceilings. A failure to come to terms with this in deciding the current allocations will undoubtedly have consequences for the Irish taxpayer but in the shorter term for Government departments. The temptation must be avoided at the highest level of Government to again kick the can down the road via backloading or actions involving sectoral limits that undermine the credibility of the 2022 Climate Action Plan, or indeed the over-two-year-delayed long term strategy that Brussels anxiously awaits as proof that Ireland has once and for all shed its “delinquent” status.

John Sweeney is emeritus professor of geography at Maynooth University