Farmers will take fair share of pain to reduce emissions

Proposed limits on sectoral emissions do not take into account impact on incomes and production

As we approach a decision on sectoral targets for climate action, the debate appears to be getting more and more polarised.

Farmers could be forgiven for thinking they are public enemy number one. They feel they are being unfairly targeted.

But their real frustration is the absence of any Government impact assessment of the overall 51 per cent emission reduction requirement. This is good practice when significant transformation is planned.

Economic and social sustainability has to sit with environmental sustainability.


The target for 2030 was set down in the programme for government in the early months of Covid-19.

I think we can all agree that the world has changed utterly since this target was fixed and the Act was passed last year.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to every reputable global organisation warning of food shortages. The United Nations, for example, recently warned of a real risk of multiple famines in 2022, and 2023 could be even worse.

Yet the consequence of continuing with this Government plan will be to reduce food production in one of the best countries in the world to produce food.

Our reputation as a producer of sustainable food is recognised globally. We consistently uphold the highest standards. Indeed, Ireland is fortunate that we have the natural resources to do this.

Supporters of the current plan argue that measures to reduce emissions in the transport sector (the other area being targeted for the biggest reductions along with farming) will affect all households. They point out that the average household income is €52,941 [and] compare this to dairy farm income which averaged €94,000 in 2021. The logic being [that] diary farmers are better able to shoulder the economic burden of cutting emissions.

However, they fail to acknowledge the phenomenal input cost pressures this year, or that average farm income (as against dairy farm income) is much less at €34,367. Almost three in every five Irish farms (57 per cent) earned less than €20,000 in 2021.

Flawed argument

Using the highest sector figure distorts the picture. It also seems to have been forgotten that transport emissions have increased by 100 per cent since 1990. Agriculture remained relatively static in the same period.

Another flaw in the argument that farmers should bear a disproportional burden in order to spare the impact on all households of cutting transport emissions is that farmers are householders also. They too will have to bear the impact of measures to reduce emissions from transport, energy and other sectors, the same as every other citizen.

Farming is the only sector where there will be a direct hit on incomes.

The Climate Act does indeed have a clause requiring the Government to have regard for the “special economic and social importance” of agriculture.

The sector supports approximately 165,000 jobs in the rural economy. It represents 7.1 per cent of total employment and €14 billion in exports. The Government hasn’t done any analysis of what the impact of sectoral ceilings will be. The only detailed report was completed by KPMG on behalf of the Irish Farmers Journal. This finds that a cut of 30 per cent will reduce output by €3.8 billion and cost more than 56,000 jobs in the rural economy.

Some have sought to undermine this report, but the reality is the Government has no idea what the economic or social impact will be on farmers or the rural economy.

The Climate Act also makes it very clear that the Government shall have regard to the potential risk of carbon leakage from measures brought in to address the climate challenge.

The Act says that “carbon leakage” means the transfer, due to climate policies, of production to other countries with less restrictive policies with regard to greenhouse gas emissions. Again, the Government has done no analysis, that we are aware of, to determine what level of leakage will arise from the sectoral ceilings. This is a requirement of their own Act.

They know that global demand for meat and dairy products is increasing. If these products are not produced in Ireland, they will be produced elsewhere with a higher emissions footprint. Irish milk production is 74 per cent more efficient — in terms of carbon footprint — than milk produced in India and 42 per cent more carbon efficient than Chinese milk, some of the world’s largest milk producers.

Limiting food production

The reality is that limiting food production in Ireland is likely to increase global emissions.

Some have hailed lab-produced meat as the way forward. The record of some companies in this area would suggest there is not a market emerging for this industrially produced substitute. Unsurprisingly, the consumer doesn’t want it. Comparing the transition to renewable energy with a proposed transition to lab-produced meat is not valid; it is the complete opposite. A natural cycle would be replaced by industrial production.

The Climate Act states that the Government will have regard to the “distinct characteristics” of biogenic methane.

But the Government has ignored this. Anybody following the development of climate science will know the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Climate Change 2021, acknowledged an alternative method of measuring the global warming potential (GWP) of biogenic methane. Developed by the University of Oxford, it shows that the GWP of methane may be overstated by three to four times when those emissions are in equilibrium.

It is without question that methane is a potent gas, but its source is important and determines whether the resulting carbon dioxide makes a net contribution to global warming.

Emissions from biogenic sources such as cattle are part of the biological recycling of carbon and do not contribute to increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. And it is carbon dioxide that is the primary cause of climate change.

We should look at the approach adopted by New Zealand. It set a different target for biogenic methane.

The approach by this Government appears to be thus: set the ceilings and worry about the consequences later. The reality is that farming is the only sector that can remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Agricultural grasslands have significant potential to sequester carbon dioxide as part of root biomass and in the soil. This could potentially offset some of the emissions associated with agriculture.

The Teagasc national farm survey estimates that improved carbon sequestration could offset 46 per cent of the emissions of an average suckler beef farm. Farmers will be critical to achieving the emission reduction targets for the land use and land-use change and forestry sector.

But the Government has only started the process to accurately measure the carbon sequestered, so it’s being ignored.

The Paris Agreement said that climate policies should be achieved in a way that does not have an impact on food production.

Farmers are willing to play their part, but it has to be achieved in a way that is just and feasible.

  • Tim Cullinan is president of the Irish Farmers’ Association.