Agriculture must share in Ireland’s bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% relative to the 2005 level.
The most important EU climate change policy development since 2007 — that was the Teagasc verdict on last week’s proposals from Brussels for greenhouse gas reduction to be achieved from 2021 to 2030.
Already, the industrial and power sectors (ETS) are asked to reduce 2030 emissions by 43%, compared to 2005.
Now, the EU wants to reduce non-ETS emissions by 40%, compared to 1990. These sectors such as transport, agriculture, buildings, and waste produce about 60% of EU emissions.
Each member state must contribute to this overall reduction. The European Commission announced targets for each EU state.
The targets vary from state to state, largely depending on levels of wealth. The lowest targets are set for the less affluent countries of Eastern Europe, the highest for the richer Northern European countries.
Limits are assigned for each year, decreasing in a linear trajectory.
Ireland will be required to reduce emissions by 30% relative to the 2005 level.
Eleven states have higher targets. And there is some new leeway around the 30% figure, because provisions allow for the use of emissions trading, and for carbon sequestration associated with changes in land use.
This integration of land use with agriculture is one of the significant developments, says Teagasc director of research Frank O’Mara.
It allows carbon sequestered in forests, or soils, to be offset against emissions produced by agriculture.
“This policy development provides an opportunity to develop new strategies to address the emissions challenge, but much research is needed to quantify both the rate of carbon storage in our soils and the management practices that can increase it,” said Mr O’Mara.
Ireland will have 5.6% flexibility from land use. This is a substantially larger margin than any other EU state except Latvia.
Nevertheless, the overall 30% reduction is seen by Teagasc experts as an ambitious target. That means continuing pressure on Irish agriculture, because it is the source of 30% of total national emissions, much higher than any other EU member state.
So progress must continue in reducing the carbon footprint of Irish milk and meat, by improving farm level efficiency and adopting practices such as longer grazing seasons and better utilisation of animal manures, while using animal genetics.
Unfortunately, new technologies have little effect on enteric methane, which accounts for 59% of agricultural greenhouse gases.
In contrast, there has been a breakthrough in reducing emissions of nitrous oxide, the other main agricultural greenhouse gas. Recent Teagasc research into new fertiliser formulations and nutrient use strategies indicated nitrous oxide emissions could be reduced by as much as 20%.
The key to this is using urea fertiliser which was treated with a urease inhibitor called NBPT. Yields are not affected, ammonia gas loss is dramatically reduced, and greenhouse gas loss is lower than for CAN, the most popular nitrogen fertiliser.
The commission said it is working to keep the EU competitive while moving towards a modern and low-carbon economy set by the Paris agreement on climate change.
Minister for Communications, Climate Action, and Environment Denis Naughten said: “The EU proposals will require careful study and analysis to determine the effort required of Ireland towards 2030 carbon emission reductions.”
An Taisce has calculated that the reduction of 30%, relative to 2005, will effectively reduce to only 20.4% if proposed “flexibilities” arising from forestry and Emission Trading System allowances are fully exploited. This is almost unchanged from the 20% target previously agreed to be achieved in 2020, said Barry McMullin, representing An Taisce.
He said EU and Irish climate policy is “weak and minimal”.
Representing the co-ops, ICOS president Martin Keane said that our agricultural emissions have reduced by 9.7% since 1990, while other areas such as transport saw emissions increase by more than 120%.
“I welcome the inclusion of land use, land use change, and forestry within the scope of the new EU climate change framework. This is a sensible approach, which broadens the tools available for Ireland to reduce GHG emissions, as forestry and permanent grassland can sequester carbon,” said Mr Keane.
He said Irish agriculture is in a good position to address the twin challenges of climate change and food security, because our production model is independently verified as being among the most carbon efficient.
Ibec, the group that represents Irish business, said the headline figure of a 30% reduction by 2030 on 2005 levels is higher than expected, and will be a challenge.
Senior energy policy executive Conor Minogue emphasised the new flexibility measures. “The proposal to allow some member states, including Ireland, to use carbon sequestration through land use change to help meet the 2030 targets is welcome. This presents a great opportunity for Ireland and should further incentivise sustainable farming, afforestation, and good land use practices throughout the country.”
The role of agriculture and forestry to curb climate change was welcomed at EU level by Copa and Cogeca, the umbrella organisations for farmers and co-ops.
Secretary general Pekka Pesonen said it welcomed the flexibility in the plans, which “enable the EU agriculture and forestry sectors to fight climate change in a balanced manner”.
“This is particularly important given these sectors also absorb emissions from the atmosphere. The EU agriculture and forestry sectors make a big contribution to fighting climate change, helping the EU to cut its greenhouse gas emissions.”
IFA president Joe Healy said agriculture can support the transport and housing sectors through greater use of indigenous bioenergy fuels for transport, and renewable fuels such as miscanthus for heating family homes.
“Farmers will continue to farm sustainably, with over 87% of the measures in Ireland’s Rural Development Programme having climate reducing elements,” he said.
“The emissions intensity per calorie of food output in 2013 was approximately 14% below 2005. This figure is projected to reach 25% by 2030, based on the delivery of current policy measures. However, sustainability must also deliver an economic return for farm families.”
A spokesman for the meat industry rejected any suggestions of curbing production in a country “where we produce extensively, and off grass, more efficiently, and sustainably than elsewhere”. He said curbing production in Ireland would simply lead to additional production in other, less efficient and higher carbon-emitting countries.
Transport accounts for a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and is a main cause of air pollution. Last week’s proposals include a low-emission strategy, with low- and zero-emission vehicles and alternative low-emissions fuels planned.
EU financial support of €70bn is available for transport, part of the 20%-plus of the EU budget which is explicitly climate related.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved