My analysis of the new Department of Agriculture’s Ag Climatise roadmap for the sector, as reported by Kevin O’ Sullivan in the Irish Times

Last week, the Department of Agriculture released ‘Ag Climatise’, a new strategy claiming to set out a pathway for “climate neutral” agriculture. On the surface this seems like a deeply ambitious policy. But it clearly is not consistent with the Paris Agreement.

The agriculture sector is responsible for 35% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a very strong global warming impact. Globally, methane from agriculture and fossil fuels has been responsible for the two-fifths of the one degree of global temperature rise that has already taken place as a result of human activities. Ireland is the fourth highest per-capita emitter of methane from agriculture in the world, and emissions are 15% higher since 2011, driven by dairy output and the abolition of milk quotas.

Surely the government’s new “roadmap for climate neutrality” for agriculture will at a minimum reverse this recent rise in emissions? It doesn’t.

Far from consistent with the Programme for Government climate target

Ag Climatise seeks to merely stabilise methane emissions. In other words, at some undefined point, methane emissions are to stop growing further. Small net reductions in the sector’s overall emissions are planned by reducing emissions of nitrogen, which is responsible for around a third of emissions from the sector, by around one-fifth. This means the strategy is not only far from consistent with the Programme for Government target of halving overall greenhouse gases by 2030, but appears to be actually less ambitious than the previous government’s Climate Action Plan, which targets a 10-15% reduction in emissions from agriculture by 2030.

The new roadmap acknowledges that cuts in methane will be required in the long-term, but relies on innovations in breeding, technology and feed additives to achieve this, rather than reducing production. However, each dairy cow is now emitting 15% more methane than in 1990, so it is not clear how these innovations will succeed.

Such a lack of ambition for emissions reductions in agriculture will mean other sectors, namely transport and heat, will have to compensate with more drastic emissions cuts. Is it fair to push the extra burden from agriculture onto people, to enable an expansion of beef and dairy exports?

The strategy does admit that it is not consistent with the Programme for Government target of halving overall greenhouse gases by 2030, a 7% annual decline in emissions, and therefore will need to be a living document.

But this begs the question: Why publish a strategy for the agriculture sector not compatible with the Programme for Government target, which tells farmers that their sector is climate neutral?

In its 2020 Annual Review, the Climate Change Advisory Council pointed out that increasing beef and dairy production would not benefit Irish society when we take into account the resulting pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent “State of the Environment” report highlighted the huge environmental pressures that arise from our agricultural system. Further, the Council believes that the risk of carbon leakage does not vindicate our strategy for agriculture, even though it is commonly used to justify continued expansion.

This week also saw the publication of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Gap Report, whose findings on global progress on tackling climate change are bleak. Despite many countries making ambitious pledges and targets for the distant future, greenhouse gases continue to rise. The savings we will see in 2020 from the Covid-19 pandemic will be negligible to the climate.

If Ireland relay wants to pursue an ambitious climate target and meaningfully transform into a sustainable society, we need to move away from long-term pledges and start making realistic and truly transformative actions across all sectors.

Ireland’s agricultural system is unsustainable

A newly-proposed accounting metric for greenhouse gas emissions known as GWP* is being used to claim that stabilised methane emissions are “climate neutral”, but there is no global scientific or political consensus that this is the correct interpretation. With rising methane emissions, which is the case globally and in Ireland, this metric shows that we are under-counting the warming impact of methane. However, for falling methane emissions, the opposite is the case.

There are no easy solutions or get-out-of-jail free cards. Ireland’s agricultural system, which relies on producing the most carbon-intensive foods, is highly unsustainable. To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, which was adopted five years ago, and to avert the worst impacts of climate change, deep cuts in global methane emissions are required, which will likely require making diets more sustainable as well as transforming food production systems.

New Zealand, which is the country with the highest per-capita emissions of methane from agriculture, has acknowledged this by setting target for methane into law, requiring a 10% cut in emissions by 2030 and 24-47% cut by 2050, along with a “net zero” target for CO2.

If Ireland truly wants to do its part to tackle climate change, we need to do the same and set a clear target for reducing methane emissions into the new Climate Bill, which is now being reviewed by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change.