Ireland is facing a litmus test of our commitment to serious climate action

Taoiseach’s legacy and Eamon Ryan’s political purpose on the line as Ministers negotiate sectoral pollution targets

Before the end of the month, the Government is due to make a far-reaching decision on how much each sector of the economy and society has to cut its climate-polluting emissions by 2030. That’s industry, transport, buildings, electricity and agriculture.

The reason the public discussion has centred almost exclusively on agriculture is that it’s the only sector mounting a sustained lobbying campaign to reject the target proposed by Government last year. This campaign is threatening to derail the whole process.

It wouldn’t be the first time lobbying by farming groups has scuppered Ireland’s climate action plans. In 2010, the then Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition government proposed a climate Bill with a target to reduce Ireland’s gross greenhouse gas emissions to approximately 33 million tonnes by 2030, from 62 million tonnes at the time. Intensive lobbying by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) stalled that legislation. It was 10 years before any government tried to put our climate targets into national law again, a period campaigners refer to as “the lost decade” for climate action. Total emissions rose rather than fell over that time.

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When the Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Green Party Coalition finally passed a climate law a year ago this week, the 2030 target remained much the same, to reduce our emissions to 33 million tonnes. But the challenge is much tougher now. We have to do in a decade what we could have had two decades to do. Rather than average annual reductions of 3 per cent a year to meet our 2030 target, we now face average reductions of 7 per cent a year.

Back in 2010 no one was suggesting agriculture would have to cut as fast or as much as other sectors, but the agriculture lobby regarded any binding commitment to reduce overall Irish emissions as a threat to their future growth plans. And grow they did: the size of the dairy herd increased almost 50 per cent between 2010 and 2020 and the total number of cattle grew by 11 per cent. As surely as night follows day, climate polluting emissions from agriculture also rose, by 12 per cent.

If any one sector cuts its emissions by less than 51%, some other sector has to cut it by more than 51%

Now we have a commitment in law to reduce national emissions by 51 per cent by 2030. The resulting pollution pie or emissions cake — 295 million tonnes from 2021 to 2025, and 200 million tonnes from 2026 to 2030 — has to be divided between sectors as the Government sets binding “sectoral emissions ceilings” under the law.

If any one sector cuts its emissions by less than 51 per cent, some other sector has to cut it by more than 51 per cent. The combined sectoral ceilings can’t add up to more than 100 per cent of the national carbon budget adopted by the Dáil in April, in the same way that combined departmental spending can’t add up to more than the overall fiscal budget agreed by Government.

This is not a story about farmers versus environmentalists or Green Ministers versus Fine Gael backbenchers. All Government TDs voted to put the 51 per cent commitment into law just a year ago. All the social partners who appeared before the Oireachtas committee earlier this year were given the opportunity to object to the overall carbon budget. None did.

We urgently have to get on with radically reducing the pollution driving climate breakdown. This involves “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change puts it. The world is burning. This is a climate emergency and we have to start acting like it.

The IFA and others are quick to point out that the climate law says the Government “shall have regard to the special economic and social role of agriculture”. It does, and the Government has. The proposed cut in agricultural pollution is 30 per cent, just half the 60 per cent the rest of the economy and society has to do in order to hit the national target of 51 per cent

And yet, the IFA are pressing Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue not to agree to cuts of more than 22 per cent, which would leave the rest of society facing cuts of 68 per cent, more than three times as much. The Minister, IFA and any TD that supports that position should be asked which sector they think should do even more to make up the shortfall.

Modelling from University College Cork’s climate and energy research centre has analysed what it would mean for other sectors if agriculture did no more than 22 per cent. On top of all the existing challenging measures required by 2030, such as one million electric vehicles, it would mean taking 500,000 cars off the road, or all vans, or closing cement factories or getting an additional quarter of all houses to zero pollution. The cost of making these more expensive reductions would work out at €5,000 per household. That is neither fair nor feasible.

Unless every sector achieves its maximum target we won’t hit the 51%, but agriculture is still holding out for further concessions

Every other sector has agreed to emissions reductions at the top end of the ranges proposed late last year. And unless every sector achieves its maximum target we won’t hit the 51 per cent, but agriculture is still holding out for further concessions. This is not some routine disagreement between Ministers. This is like Mr McConalogue delaying the financial budget in September because he wants to spend more money than Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath can give him, and expecting other departments to make cuts instead.

We need every sector to step up and do its fair share. If agriculture refuses, the targets for the other sectors become implausible and the credibility of our whole climate action effort could crumble.

It’s time for the Taoiseach to convene the three party leaders to find a solution. Under his leadership, this Government has made real strides towards serious climate action. The decision on sectoral ceilings is a litmus test of that commitment. Micheál Martin has spoken convincingly recently of the need to rise to the climate challenge and this decision will be a significant part of his legacy as Taoiseach. For Eamon Ryan, it is the reason he led the Greens into Government and he surely cannot accept an outcome that undermines the climate law.

We need a solution that is fair to all sectors and sends a clear signal to society at large that the race to a cleaner, safer future starts now. As the UN put it recently, it’s now or never.

  • Oisín Coghlan is chief executive of Friends of the Earth.