Like it or not, climate change is now a fact of life, both here in Ireland, as evidenced by our ever more frequent flooding disasters, and globally. The Paris Agreement hammered out and agreed by almost every nation on Earth last month, binds us to dramatically and urgently reducing our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
This agreement leaves each country to figure out how best to decarbonise.
Ireland is tied into the EU’s legally binding commitment to cut GHGs by 40% by 2030.
Yet even this may not be enough to avert climate chaos.
Ireland has two key problems, namely our agriculture and transport sectors.
According to the EPA, these two areas alone will account for three quarters of Ireland’s entire non-traded GHGs by 2020.
Agriculture, although a small part of our total economy, is by far our biggest polluter, principally due to the size of our national beef and dairy herds.
There are more cattle than people in Ireland, and ruminant agriculture is hugely pollution-intensive, despite repeated spin from minister Simon Coveney and the food industry lobby.
A study by the influential UK Chatham House institute found that despite its vast contribution to climate change, beef and dairy “attracts remarkably little policy attention”.
Report author Rob Bailey added: “You can make a compelling case that without dietary change at the global level, the 2C goal is pretty much off the table”.
The world’s population today is well over seven billion, and, barring disaster, will rise to beyond nine billion in the coming decades.
The Irish agri-industrial lobby argues it should receive special treatment regarding emissions because of our contribution to global food security.
This notion was demolished recently by Trócaire’s’s Justin Kilcullen, who noted: “Beef and dairy production have nothing to contribute to world food security. If anything they will achieve the opposite in the long term.
"The idea the people of Africa and Asia will be surviving on Irish beef and cheese in years to come is risible.”
As a means of converting calories into food, red meat production is uniquely inefficient.
Recent research found that compared to foods like potatoes, wheat and rice, producing one calorie of beef requires a staggering 160 times more land and produces between 11 and 48 times more GHGs, depending on exactly how it is calculated.
“The biggest intervention people could make towards reducing their carbon footprints would not be to abandon cars, but to eat significantly less red meat,” according to Prof Tim Benton of the University of Leeds.
The Irish beef sector only survives thanks to generous EU subsidies.
Prof Alan Matthews of TCD has calculated that the typical cattle operation in Ireland lost €122 per hectare in 2013. Without EU subsidies averaging €400 per hectare, these farms “could not continue”.
Prof Matthews added that when the additional costs of GHGs were added in, the picture is even worse, and he urged farmers to improve their own financial position by moving large areas of beef and dairy production into forestry, which could also benefit Ireland in both GHG abatement and flood control.
Reaction from the farm lobby to Matthews’ suggestion was so hostile, no politician has since been prepared to discuss it openly.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny has admitted there is little possibility of Ireland evading EU fines running into hundreds of millions of euro per annum between 2020 and 2030 as a result of our failure to meet our emissions targets.
An Taisce has repeatedly asked why the ordinary taxpayer should have to pay the EU fines arising from adding 300,000 dairy cows to our already massive national herd, as set out under Food Harvest 2020.
The farm lobby also claims it is not looking for a ‘free pass’ on emissions, yet when asked to quantify how it plans to make the kind of cuts demanded by science, no meaningful answer has been forthcoming.
Despite the wishful thinking of the agri-food industry, in reality no sector is more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change than agriculture.
A report by Dr Stephen Flood of NUIM projected the total economic costs of climate change to Irish agriculture in the region of €1-2bn p.a. by mid-century.
In other words, it likely wipes out all gains expected under Food Harvest 2020.
To confront the existential threat of climate change, we must use science to inform policy, not the other way round.
And science tells us that, unless we rapidly change direction, calamity beckons.
Whether you’re a farmer or a city dweller, we are all Irish citizens, and surely deserve an honest debate about the very real threats to our shared future.
John Gibbons is an environmental commentator and is climate change spokesman for An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust (a voluntary position)
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