Agriculture's share of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions was updated to 37.1% in the recent first Progress Report on the Climate Action Plan 2021.
It revealed that most of the heavy lifting to reduce emissions from October 1, 2021, to the end of March 2022 was done by the Government and its agencies.
This included putting in place the Nitrates Action Programme, submitting the Common Agricultural Policy Strategic Plan to the European Commission, and working with researchers and Teagasc.
But the burden will increasingly fall on farmers, who are required by the plan to take measures to bridge the 5.4m tonnes gap between 2020 emissions for agriculture (21.4m tonnes) and the target for 2030 (16m tonnes).
For example, the plan says nitrogen use must be cut to under 350,000 tonnes by 2025, and to under 325,000 tonnes by 2030.
Also, 65% of calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) fertiliser must be replaced by protected urea, and there must be 90% uptake of low-emission slurry spreading.
These measures will reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, which is 11.9% of national emissions.
Measures to reduce methane from livestock include milk recording to increase from 50% to 90% of dairy herds, and suckler cattle weight recording from 30% to 70%. The average finishing age of prime beef must be reduced from 27 to 24 months by 2030.
Feedstuff crude protein must reduce, and methane-reducing additives must be used in the housing period.
Organic farming must increase from 74,000 to 350,000 hectares, by 2030.
Agricultural feedstocks must be used to produce 1.6 terawatt-hours per year of biomethane for the gas grid.
There will be a review of diversification opportunities, such as biomethane and energy, agroforestry, afforestation; exploration of carbon farming; and investigation of use of methane reducing feed additives at pasture.
Meanwhile, concluding negotiations with the EU Commission on the Nitrates Action Programme (NAP), and introducing accompanying legislation, was one of the early achievements in the Climate Action Plan.
The NAP is an essential regulatory tool to reduce nitrogen pollution from agriculture and associated impacts on emissions and water quality. It contains new and strengthened measures around chemical fertilisers, slurry storage and spreading, inspection and enforcement, industrial or sewage sludges, and crude protein content in feed.
Similarly, submitting the draft CAP Strategic Plan to the European Commission enabled the government to support the maximum possible EU climate ambition through the CAP, the essential source of necessary income supports, incentives, and signals to farmers to decarbonise.
In the Department of Agriculture, procurement is under way to develop training platforms and content for upskilling 400 public and private farm advisers in climate change, biodiversity, soil and water management.
And Teagasc has committed to build its technical and advisory capacity in promotion of organics and farm income diversification options. This is seen as essential to transform existing agricultural practices towards lower-emission activities. Included is a new cohort of Organic Accelerator Advisers to build farmer confidence and skills.
There has been research progress — for example, Teagasc examined potential food residues such as traces in milk from new, lower-emitting fertiliser formulations, and the results allow the industry to have confidence in widespread use of these new fertilisers such as protected urea, which are needed to reduce emissions.
At 37.1% of national emissions (not including the Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry sector), agriculture is the largest emitting sector, and its emissions increased by 10% from 2015 to 2020, largely related to the abolition of milk quotas and related increase in dairy cow numbers.
Enteric fermentation in cattle and sheep caused 57.5% of agriculture emissions, soil emissions 26.8%, manure management 10.3%, and the remainder, 5.4%, came from fuel, application of lime for soil fertility, and urea.
Therefore, ruminants (the enteric and manure sources) were the source of 68% of Irish emissions, with enteric alone the source of 19%.
This is why diversification, breeding, feed management, animal health, low emission slurry spreading, earlier slaughter, and other ways to reduce enteric and manure emissions are seen as the areas of highest greenhouse gas abatement potential.
In the first Climate Plan 2021 progress report, a completion rate of 73% of 2021-22 actions is reported overall.
But the report details several measures that were not delivered on time, which are expected to be completed early this year.
As for LULUCF (the Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry sector), it is described as an increasingly challenging emissions source. It has significant potential to absorb carbon, through sequestration in trees, wet boglands, and harvested wood. But declining forest area, drainage of peat soils for farming, and peatland drainage, have made LULUCF a net source of emissions since 1990, and corrective action is needed.
Therefore, increasing afforestation is a key objective in the climate plan, along with better grassland management on organic soils, and restoring and rewetting peatlands that were drained for farming or peat extraction.
The Peatlands Restoration Programme is in place, having worked on eight protected raised bogs in 2021, totalling 620 hectares. Restoration will continue in 2022.
In the Enhanced Decommissioning, Rehabilitation and Restoration Scheme for Bord Na Móna peatlands, works have commenced on 18 bogs, with 5,196 hectares rehabilitated.
Efforts to increase landowner participation will be central to the design of the department's next forestry programme. While participation in some schemes has increased, afforestation applications reduced from 528 (4,341ha) in 2020 to 502 (4,245ha) in 2021.
Integrated land use planning for appropriate afforestation that includes rewetting and habitat restoration is important, to prevent any rebound emissions or environmental effects from planting on organic soils.
Delays in securing afforestation consents resulted in Coillte missing the planting window for 2021/2022. If consenting is successfully completed before next month, planting will not be possible until November at the earliest.