We no longer live in a world where we can ingratiate our way forward by pleading we are a small country trying to fight our way out of a recession by producing lots of healthy green beef and milk. We are going to have to make some quite drastic changes to our lifestyles and to the way we manage our countryside.
The World Resources Institute monitors greenhouse gas emissions country by country and publishes the results. In a list of emissions per person for 285 countries, starting with the worst and ending with the best, we are at number 21. The countries that are even worse than us make up a rather odd list. Wealthy industrialised countries like the US, Canada and Australia are understandable but most of the Gulf States are in there, along with a number of Caribbean Islands, and the worst offender is the tiny central American state of Belize. In the EU the only countries worse than Ireland are Estonia and Luxembourg.
This list, which is widely regarded as definitive, takes into account different greenhouse gases. Methane, is regarded as 21 times as dangerous as carbon dioxide so one tonne of methane emitted is counted as 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide. The methane emitted by Irish livestock is one of the reasons why we perform so badly on the list. Land-use also counts. This means, you lose points if you cut down forests but gain them if you plant them.
The small percentage of our land area covered by trees also contributes to our low ranking. Our own Environmental Protection Agency publishes data which divides up our greenhouse gas emissions by sector. The greatest single contributor is agriculture at 29.2%, followed by transport at 21% and energy, meaning electricity generation and oil refining, also on 21%.
We are now obliged by legally binding treaties to improve our performance. How we do this will be decided by a combination of our own efforts and of EU requirements. The options don’t look very attractive. If we rapidly increase numbers of electric vehicles and reduce the amount of coal, oil and gas used to generate the electricity to power them we can make some inroads in the 42% of our emissions produced by transport and energy combined. However, the real challenge lies in the 29.2% of emissions from agriculture.
The farming lobby and the government are both committed to increasing agricultural production and growing the size of the national herd. This inevitably means more methane and less land available for carbon-reducing measures like forestry, It doesn’t seem possible to do this and to improve our dismal ranking as an atmosphere polluter.