Ireland presents a very particular profile with regard to the climate change objective in the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP).
Uniquely, we have the highest level of permanent grassland in the EU, which at 91% is almost three times the EU average of 31%.
Furthermore, we have very extensive peatlands, covering more than 20% of Ireland.
This means that Irish soil is a huge store of carbon.
Yet, according to the EU, we face very serious climate change challenges, strongly linked to agriculture.
Our net greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from farming have been rising since 2011, to 35.3% of total national emissions by 2018.
The EU acknowledges that this can be partly explained by Ireland’s lack of heavy industry.
Nevertheless, it is clear that cattle expansion, especially dairy cattle (also a threat to the CAP objective of environmental care) is pushing emissions, along with increases in use of synthetic fertiliser.
From 2013 to 2018, the EU estimates methane from ruminants increased 9.6%, manure management emissions grew 7.5%, and soil management emissions grew 6.2% (linked to expansion of areas awarded a nitrates derogation, with consequences also for the CAP’s environmental care objective).
The EU has asked Ireland to build responses to these challenges into its plan for the next CAP, starting in 2023, which will be very instrumental in the transition towards sustainability.
The EU also sees problems with our peatlands, drained on a large scale over the years, for peat extraction, farming and afforestation, to the point where 80% are degraded.
80% of peatlands degraded
Although trees can no longer be planted on peatlands, in 2017, active drainage and peat extraction was still taking place on 56,000 ha.
It is estimated that drained peat soils release around 20 tonnes of carbon dioxide GHG per hectare per year.
And forest and woodland to absorb carbon is only thinly present in Ireland, says the EU.
Our forest cover is only 11% (the EU average is 40%).
We have plans to lift forest to 18% by 2046, but planting has been well behind the necessary 8,000 ha per year.
Moreover, our grasslands, though a carbon sink, also have high carbon emissions, so there are overall positive net emissions from land use, land use change, and forestry, according to the EU.
Lack of forests is part of Ireland’s modest renewable energy production from the land.
Only 2.6% of our renewable energy production came from farming in 2018 (the EU averages 12%) and 19% from forestry (the EU averages 41%).
Biogas and biomethane in Ireland are still at early development stages, and our forests are not expected to keep pace for much longer with the combined needs of wood panelling and wood-based energy.
On the other hand, Ireland’s use of energy in agriculture and forestry (42 kg of oil equivalent per hectare in 2018) is modest by EU standards.
The EU fears Irish agriculture is vulnerable to climate change because of specialisation, but most farmers here are not interested in diversifying, despite predictions of more autumn and winter rain (due to climate change) causing additional nutrient leaching, soil erosion, and pollution from farmland to fresh water.
Hotter and drier summers are also expected, threatening yields and availability of fodder.
In response to these various issues, Ireland’s national energy and climate plans set out various pathways for action.
The EU sees points of concern in relation to water, soil and air in Ireland, principally due to livestock numbers rising substantially.
This trend has left 33% of Ireland’s cattle, owned by 10% of farmers, occupying 14% of the agricultural area.
The EU sees the involvement of industry as essential in finding solutions to this trend, because these farmers are less dependent on the CAP for their income support.
In this regard, the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme provides 30 free advisors to farmers through a combination of State and dairy industry funding.
The EU says such initiatives should be encouraged.
Water, soil and air concerns also arise from growing use of synthetic fertilisers, sales of which increased by 10% year-on-year in 2017 and 2018, before a 10% decrease in 2019, with Teagasc leading efforts to reduce fertiliser use.
Ireland has legally binding limits for nitrogen and phosphorus through its Nitrates Action Programme, and 21% of soils are at agronomic optimum for phosphorus, potassium and lime, so there is considerable potential for gains in fertiliser use efficiency.
However, ammonia emissions from agriculture pose a significant problem, climbing since 2011, exceeding EU legal limits in 2016 for the first time, and leaving Ireland at high risk of non-compliance with EU emission reduction commitments for ammonia.
Meanwhile, the quality of Ireland’s rivers is falling, with poor status surface water bodies reporting rising to 18% in 2013-2018 from 15% in 2007-2009.
Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency says water quality is getting worse after a period of relative stability and improvement.
On the other hand, in 2013-2018. 92% of ground water bodies (in 98% of the country by area) were in good chemical and quantitative status).
The main water problem in Ireland is nutrient pollution, with a third of rivers and a quarter of estuaries failing to meet nutrient-based environmental quality standards.
Although Ireland’s potential nitrogen surplus on farmland, at 41 kg/ha/year in 2017, was lower than the EU average (47 kg), it had been rising since 2011 (having declined from 1995 to 2011.
The potential phosphorus surplus was 20kg/ha/year in 2015, significantly above the EU average of 1kg (and rising since 2008), though this may reflect efforts at rectifying past depletion.
Overall, nutrient discharges to water are reported to have been increasing since 2013 because of higher cattle numbers, increased fertiliser use, and nitrate derogations.
The 2018 derogation report confirmed that, since 2013, water quality decreased, particularly in the south and south-east, where nitrogen emissions are a particular concern, whereas phosphorus concentrations are too high in various parts of Ireland.
Heavy rainfall and regularity of storms often overwhelm measures to protect and enhance water quality.
In contrast, there is a generally positive soil picture in Ireland, with organic carbon content of 127 g/kg (versus 47 g in the EU), including 67 and 82 g on Irish arable land (the highest in the EU).
Nor is there significant pressure from soil erosion by water, or from soil sealing.
Peatlands however are under threat.
The EU says Ireland has potential advantages with regard to the CAP objective of preserving landscapes and biodiversity.
For example, the EU’s highest farmland share of permanent grassland, a large presence of peatland, and a well-established network of hedgerows, all support biodiversity.
Nevertheless, there are causes for concern. The farmland bird index stood at 107 in 2016 (up from 100 in 2000). But the European Environment Agency’s Countryside Bird Survey shows Irish farmland bird populations fell by 8% from 2005 to 2014, and shrubland/peatland species fell 8.7% (but just 0.2% in the case of woodland species).
EU Habitats Directive Natura 2000 zones cover just 3.6% of Ireland’s agricultural area, compared with 11% for the EU as a whole.
Natura 2000 grassland habitats of EU interest, affected by agriculture and reported on under the Habitats Directive, do not have favourable conservation status, and did not improve from 2013 to 2018.
For 17%, the status is “unfavourable, inadequate”; it is “unfavourable, bad” for the remaining 83% (compared to 43% of such grassland habitats in the EU as a whole).
All three heathland habitats have “unfavourable, bad” status (especially significant because 20% of the EU’s wet heaths are in Ireland).
For heathland and grassland habitats, there have been declines in bird populations.
For example, the breeding population of the lapwing has undergone a long-term decline of 56%. Grassland butterfly species are significantly under threat.
The EU says monitoring of flora and fauna outside Natura 2000 zones needs improvement, but, in any case, similar farmland habitat biodiversity problems are observed more generally.
As in many countries, there has been a long-term decline in pollinators: 30% of bee species are now considered threatened with extinction in Ireland.
Key pressures on grasslands and heathlands include land use intensification (but abandonment in some areas) as well as inappropriate mowing and harmful burning of vegetation.
The EU says Ireland’s native woodlands are in some respects in a poor state: small and fragmented, lacking full ecological functionality. Native woodland accounts for just 27% of the total wooded area.
Establishment of native woodlands is supported by a national scheme.
Around 0.9% of Ireland’s utilisable agricultural area is taken up by hedgerows and other “linear landscape features” (a 2018 estimate, somewhat higher than the EU average of 0.6%). But Ireland has less fallow land (0.1%, versus 4.1% in the EU)
Finally, uptake of organic farming is low in Ireland, at 2.6% in 2018, up from 0.9% in 2008. Our organic farms are almost completely made up of permanent grassland,