Climate policy change crucial for the future

Globally and at EU level, we face the twin challenges of increasing food production to meet the demands of nine billion people in 2050, and keeping global temperature rises below 2 degrees centigrade over pre-industrial levels.

Climate change and food security are inextricably inter-linked and this was one of the key challenges EU leaders, including the Taoiseach, faced as they met in Brussels last week to consider the EU’s Climate and Energy Framework to 2030. For Ireland too this is a crucial issue, because of the importance of our agriculture sector, and was a key focus for the Taoiseach at the European Council.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 5th Assessment Report, said that responding to climate-related risks involves decision making in a changing world, with continuing uncertainty about the severity and timing of climate-change impacts. Climate-related impacts are already reducing crop yields in some parts of the world, and a major challenge for global agriculture is to be adaptable and build resilience into future policy. Globally, the poorest and least food-secure are the most negatively affected by climate change; in a world already shamed by the fact that there are more than 800 million hungry people, this adds even greater urgency to the task of addressing climate change effectively.

To respond to the global challenge, EU leaders have committed to transforming Europe into a highly energy-efficient, low carbon economy. In its Communication “A policy framework for climate and energy in the period 2020 to 2030”, the EU has set itself targets for reducing its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions progressively up to 2050 and is working successfully towards meeting them. The centre piece of the framework agreed last week is the target to reduce the EU’s GHG emissions by 40% below the 1990 level by 2030 and also to increase the share of renewable energy to at least 27% of the EU’s energy consumption by 2030.

The formal Conclusions agreed by the EU leaders include some important text on the role of agriculture and forestry that were largely drafted by Ireland. This stresses the importance of ensuring coherence between the EU’s policies on food security and climate change. It recognises that agriculture has lower mitigation potential than some other sectors but also commits the Commission to considering how best to encourage the sustainable intensification of food production while optimising the sector’s contribution to GHG mitigation and sequestration, including through afforestation.

Greenhouse gas emissions associated with the agriculture sector, as a proportion of our overall national emissions, are significantly higher than the EU average of 9%. In Ireland agriculture remains the single largest contributor to overall emissions at 32.1% of the national total. This reflects the large size of our agri-food industry compared to the rest of the economy. Because of this unique emissions profile, there has been a substantial amount of work carried out on the analysis of potential mitigation options for the sector.

It is widely recognised that Irish agriculture has one of the lowest carbon-footprints internationally — that is to say that our GHG emissions per kilo of meat or litre of milk are low by international standards. A 2010 report from the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre Report found that Ireland’s food production systems have some of the lowest carbon footprint profiles across the EU and worldwide on a per unit basis.

The Irish agri-food sector, and the state agencies that support it, have not been complacent in contributing to climate action but have continued to drive further improvements in the climate efficiency of our food production. This is being supported by measures such as Common Agricultural Policy Reforms, participation in agri-environmental schemes, supports for manure management in line with the EU Nitrates Directive, supports for afforestation and through our Origin Green programme through which half of our farmers have had their carbon footprint measured and verified. Our new 4 billion Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 contains a range of measures designed to build on this world leading level of effort on climate smart agriculture, with the aim of driving towards our national aim of making Irish agriculture as close to “carbon neutral” as we can.

In relation to afforestation, Ireland has a target to expand forest cover from the current 11% of the land area of the country to 18% by mid century, with all of the expansion coming from agricultural land. The current forestry programme envisages an annual afforestation programme of 8,000 ha by 2020. The estimated cost to the state of the afforestation programme since 1990 and out to 2030 is 3.5 billion, which over the period 2021-2030 will remove an estimated net 5.2 million tonnes of CO2 per annum.

In the context of an on-going Government programme for the development of national climate policy and legislation, work is underway on a 2050 national low-carbon roadmap. At sectoral level the vision is for “an approach to carbon neutrality in the agriculture and land use sector, including forestry, which does not compromise capacity for sustainable food production”. Clearly our sector will play an important role in national planning on climate action and I am fully committed to ensuring that this is done in a way which is science-based and ambitious but which also fully recognises and encourages our potential for sustainable increases in food production.

The discussions between EU leaders in the European Council agreed a pledge that the EU will make in global negotiations on climate change which will culminate in Paris in 14 months. Much detailed work on EU legislation will then be required which will pin down many important details, including Ireland’s national emissions reduction target, and the Taoiseach made it clear at the European Council that this must take account of Ireland’s specific circumstances including the size and importance of our agri-food sector. I and my officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will be deeply involved in this process.

The development of this policy framework for climate and energy in the period to 2030 is hugely important for the agriculture and land use sectors across the European Union. Ireland has been providing leadership in this area in the EU, and is also very active in the UN negotiations and in a variety of other international initiatives and alliances on this crucial issue for the EU and for the planet. We will continue to play this role in the EU and international negotiations. We will also continue our efforts here in Ireland to ensure that our food is sustainably produced and that we can prove this to our customers throughout the world.

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