Colum Kenny: agriculture’s major role in climate change

Ireland under pressure to curb farm emissions but persuading farmers will not be easy

New studies being promoted this month by Stanford University in California will increase the pressure on Ireland to cut back cattle production and dairy farming.

The problem is methane, a major contributor to global warming. One of the main sources of methane is livestock. The Irish Government, facing tough demands under climate-change agreements, is pleading a special case on cattle.

The new studies come as the US Republican Party aims to rescind methane-limiting standards for the natural gas industry. Stanford now describes "a boom in US oil and gas production" as "secondary" to agriculture.

There is the science of climate change, and then there is the politics. Citizens are caught in the middle. Each day brings more news about global warming. Potentially disastrous, man-made climate-change is a reality acknowledged by the great majority of reputable scientists.


Ireland's former minister for energy and natural resources Alex White has criticised his successor Denis Naughten for the way that he proposed, this month, "a complete review of our renewable energy policy". It's just a year since White's government published a White Paper on low-carbon energy. Action, not talk, is needed.

Failing to meet targets

Fossil fuels are only part of the problem. Livestock farts and stored manure are also significant sources of methane. It’s no joke. Methane emissions are said to have jumped dramatically and to be approaching an internationally recognised worst-case scenario for greenhouse gas.

The authors of one of the new studies admit to “puzzling” uncertainties but write, “Methane appears to play an increasing role in on-going anthropogenic [man-made] climate change.” They add, “Particularly in light of the slowdown of CO2 fossil fuel emissions over the past three years” that “methane emissions from increasing agricultural activities seem to be a major, possibly dominant, cause of the atmospheric growth trends of the past decade.”

In a densely populated world hungry for food, do we really expect Irish farmers to switch from rearing cattle? Especially with words such as “puzzling” and “appears” and “seems” being used by researchers.

And why should WE act first, changing OUR individual lifestyle and losing income if people elsewhere are not doing at least as much, or even more if their countries are bigger polluters than ours? Each state may argue that it is a special case. Ireland surely pulls the poor mouth.

Ireland fails to meet it targets on pollution, while talking fine words in principle. We are no European leader on the environment, despite our benign geographic and demographic position. We have a relatively small population living in a fertile and green land.

A long shot

The challenges of compliance with climate-change objectives have just grown with the election of Donald Trump as US president, and his choice of an unsympathetic Scott Pruitt to head the US Environmental Protection Agency.

When even the most powerful and richest country on earth, a major gas guzzler, resists change and alleges that others are not doing enough, how can an Irish Government be expected to demand sacrifices from its own citizens?

Ireland says it can mitigate methane output not by cutting cattle but by creating forests to absorb or counteract emissions. This seems a long shot in a country that has a history of moaning that the British cut down all our trees but of doing too little since independence to plant indigenous woods.

And feeding people rice instead of beef is no solution, even if we could plant paddies in all that Irish rain. For flooded rice fields also emit methane.

Severe winter storms are just one of the indications that we are heading for trouble. People see what most scientists say. Some wish to help. For example, within the past month alone, two neighbourhood events of high quality were organised in Bray, Co Wicklow. At Bray Sailing Club, Dr Barry O'Dwyer of the Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy in Cork talked about how Ireland should respond to the new reality.

And at Holy Redeemer Church in Bray Fr Donal Dorr, author of Option for the Poor and for the Earth, teased out the practical and informed encyclical on the environment issued by Pope Francis. Such initiatives sow hope.

Each of us can do our little bit, recycling teabags and reducing waste. But that alone is not enough. Climate change will not stop until we also insist that politicians robustly tackle the major causes of the problem, both at home and abroad.