Crunching the carbon count for climate action

Research Lives: Frank Convery, adjunct professor, University College Dublin Earth Institute

Prof Frank Convery: 'Policymakers need to provide incentives to farmers that reward outcomes at scale.'

You are an environmental economist, but you started off in forestry, why so?

I chose to study forestry at UCD in part because it was seen as a noble act, you were helping to rebuild the nation, but also I was down the line in my family – uncles and my brother had done things like dentistry, so there was something of a shock value in choosing forestry. I wasn’t a very outdoorsy type, so it didn’t seem like a great fit for me, but it was.

Where did economics come in?

We had a young lecturer, Seamus Sheehy, who taught us agricultural economics and I was hooked. I could see that economics helped understanding of why things happen in the world and how to change outcomes. Seamus encouraged me to do a PhD in New York and after that I joined Duke University to lecture on their new environmental economics programme. Later, I brought this learning to UCD.


Your research has looked at environmental policies and changes in various parts of the world. What do you think Ireland is doing well?

One big decision made over the last 10 years was to impose a carbon tax, which both incentivises emission reduction and generates a lot of money to drive change. It has funded the retrofit of thousands of homes, and more recently is helping fund climate action and nature conservation on farms. We are also getting there with renewable energy.

You have written a series of blogs about climate policy for farming in Ireland, tell us more.

Farming is the main source of our greenhouse gases, and it also comprises the best opportunity to remove carbon at scale by planting trees and reducing carbon leakage from land.

Until we find ways that work to reduce emissions and remove carbon at scale we don’t have an effective climate policy. Secondly, there are commercial reasons why action is necessary – in time, we will face carbon-footprint competition in key premium export markets.

The measure will be kilos of carbon dioxide per kilo of product. If we lose, farm incomes in rural Ireland will shrink. But the quality of the public debate is poor. My blogs quantify the nature of the challenges, why action is essential and the policy changes needed.

What do you think policymakers and farmers need to do?

Many farmers are taking it seriously, but we need to get many more both on board and lobbying for the policies that will ensure success. The bottom line is that the climate crisis is not going to go away, and the pressure will get worse.

Policymakers need to provide incentives to farmers that reward outcomes at scale, and to deliver an innovation strategy that will deliver cheaper and better ways of doing so. And farmers need to work together on this. If they don’t collectively make changes to reduce carbon emissions at scale, they are likely to lose the carbon-footprint competition in premium markets.

What habit do you have that has stood you well in your research career?

I was struck by how brilliantly JFK used quotations. When he heard or read a phrase that impressed him, he wrote it down in a notebook. I do the same.

What do you do to take a break?

Two things: enjoying grandchildren – one each in New Zealand and Ireland – and writing a book called Navigating the Academy.

Convery’s blog posts are at

Dr Claire O’Connell is a journalist-in-residence at UCD Earth Institute

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation