Farm money advice: Does your car emit 24 times more carbon than your beef?

British documentary maker David Attenborough

Pressure on governments to address climate change seems to be ramping up by the week.

British documentary maker David Attenborough, famous for his wildlife programmes weighed in heavy this week.

At the COP24 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in Poland, Attenborough warned, “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon”.

An objective at the meeting in Poland is to put a ‘rule book’ in place to enable the landmark Paris accord be put into practice globally.

Patricia Espinosa, the UN’s Climate Chief, said: “This year is likely to be one of the four hottest years on record. Greenhouses gas concentrations in the atmosphere are at record levels, and emissions continue to rise. Climate change impacts have never been worse. This reality is telling us that we need to do much more”.

Undoubtedly, pressure will increase on farmers as a result of proposals emanating from COP24, and there is a real risk that damage will be inflicted, especially on beef industries, as a result of their bad reputation for green-house emissions.

A plethora of headlines over recent months suggested switching from beef will reduce climate change.

It’s easy to point fingers, and make sweeping statements, but let’s look at some facts.

On average in Ireland, we consume about 19kgs of beef per year. According to Bord Bia, Ireland has the fifth lowest carbon footprint for beef in the EU (27 countries), at about 19kgs of carbon per kg of beef, which compares with an EU average of 22kgs.

Firstly, it’s a valid point that if we don’t produce beef from our natural grasslands, invariably it will be produced elsewhere, at a higher carbon footprint.

Secondly, taking these two figures, the carbon cost of us eating beef is about 360kgs (19x19) per annum.

Switching to eating bean sprouts which you grow yourself might reduce your footprint to nil, but ask yourself what is our personal, national and global footprint?

And what portion of it comes from eating beef?

Shouldn’t the weighting given to reducing carbon correspond with our human hierarchy of needs?

The acceptable carbon footprint associated with providing for our food, warmth and shelter should be higher than for discretionary choices we make, such as aviation, or even commuting to work.

A person commuting 30 miles with a fuel-guzzling SUV to work emits 8.6 tons of carbon per year.

Whether that person decides to switch from beef to chicken or beef spouts is irrelevant in terms of their carbon footprint.

Indeed, our current tax system, which sought to encourage a transition towards lower emission vehicles should now be called into question, in terms of its efficacy in reducing our national footprint.

The average age of Irish cars is about 8.6 years, meaning that most of the cars on our roads now were built and purchased since the change in road tax policy in 2008.

Drive past any scrap yard, and you’ll see a plethora of cars first registered in 2008 and 2009 being scrapped.

New cars are being purchased to replace relatively new cars, and may not be much more efficient than the cars being scrapped, which calls our car tax policy into question — because estimates suggest that the carbon footprint to build a new car ranges from about 12 to 30 tons.

Socially, do we need to rethink our work and housing model?

If we take it that our national car stock has a life expectancy of only nine years on average, then the carbon footprint spread over the car’s life ranges from about 1.3 tons per year to 3.3 tons per years, which is many multiples of the carbon footprint of the average beef consumer.

Is it an indictment of the quality of cars entering our country that they have such a short lifespan, or is the underlying reality that nationally we love to flash the new number plate? Therefore, would changing our number plating system to random numbers and letters help reduce our emissions?

New climate mitigation terminology has been created over the past year or so, including the concept of farmers working within their social licence.

New Zealand’s Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor has suggested that “farmers have to operate at a higher level than they have in the past, if they wish to retain their social licence to farm”.

But is it socially acceptable for a generation of commuters to pump out carbon?

Or is it socially acceptable that our government does not allow mobility of housing stock, so that people can afford to live near workplaces?

Immediate action on climate change is undoubtedly warranted, and farming must play its part. But putting too much of the blame and focus on farming to the exclusion of the underlying dynamics of carbon emissions will not help to make a meaningful impact on climate change.

- Chartered tax adviser Kieran Coughlan, Belgooly, Co Cork. (086) 8678296

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