The Taoiseach’s plea of poverty to allow Ireland as an exception to global climate change goals got a swift rebuke from several sources, but was firmly supported by the Irish Farmers’ Association.
Enda Kenny’s plea was the latest acknowledgement that Ireland has failed to put in place policies that are successfully addressing the global problems of climate change.
Ireland signed up to cut emissions by 20% between 2005 and 2020, but the Irish and European environmental bodies say they are on track to achieve a reduction of just 3%.
The biggest failure is in the transport sector where emissions are on track to increase significantly. The European Commission blames this on the lack of proper public transport and policies it says are doing little to address the situation, with rail underdeveloped and poor provision for electric cars.
However, transport is just the second-highest sector for emissions in Ireland, accounting for 30% — agriculture is the biggest culprit at 45%, a unique situation in the EU. The reason is the huge national herd of cattle and sheep which emit methane gas, one of the greenhouse gases.
The indications are that Ireland will not meet its targets for reducing agriculture emissions, especially with the Government’s Harvest 2020 policy which aims to considerably increase the herd.
If this poses a problem with fines and possibly having to buy carbon credits to make up for missing out on hitting the targets, the next phase of tackling global climate change poses even more problems for Ireland.
Mr Kenny admitted as much in Paris, with the EU, in a presentation at COP21, committing to making even larger cuts by 2030.
He had succeeded in getting phrasing into the EU’s climate change policy last October linking production to climate change.
The Government hopes to make the case that the EU cannot afford to penalise Ireland for producing food on the basis that if Ireland doesn’t produce the beef, then other countries will — a situation that might be even more damaging to the climate.
Oliver Moore, an agroforest expert, points out that Ireland looked to be an exception to the Kyoto agreement and was allowed to emit 12% extra greenhouse gases because the economy was growing. However, the country took advantage to actually double emissions.
“Now we are blaming a recession for three years — this is consistent with the double-speak by the Government on climate. So far the commitments made by countries means that the Earth will warm by 2.7 degrees centigrade; that will be catastrophic for the world,” Mr Moore said.
“We are making the case that we want to prevent carbon leakage — that if we don’t produce the beef the carbon will be created by others elsewhere doing it — but we in fact are responsible for carbon leakage. We are not the most efficient in producing beef with low emissions; we are fifth in the EU, best for dairy, and 12th for sheep.”
It is time for a radical rethink of Ireland’s food industry, Mr Moore says, pointing to initiatives such as a mix of trees where sheep are grazing; organic farming — Ireland has the smallest proportion of land in organics in the EU; crop rotation; and a huge increase in afforestation.
The €3.6bn spent over the past 15 years on planting trees was sufficient to mitigate just 18% of agriculture emissions, but Mr Moore says this is from a very low base, with Ireland having one of the smallest areas of land in forest.
He quotes Professor Alan Matthews, who sits on the Climate Change Advisory Council that is charged with overseeing Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon economy, who made a strong case for moving land use from livestock to forestry.
A similar point was made in the Chatham House Report, according to John Gibbons of An Taisce. “Dietary change is essential if global warming is not to exceed 2C,” the report states.
The other side of climate change is food security, which threatens to reduce growing seasons and the types of crops that can be grown. As it is, there are 800m people going hungry every day, 80% of whom are small holder farmers, according to the World Food Organisation at COP21.
An estimated 265m farmers will face a 5% decrease in their growing season over the next 40 years, reducing the amount of food being produced and pushing up the prices for people who spend between 50% and 75% of their income on food.
The World Food Organisation highlighted the need to raise more money to help these, the smallest of farmers, to adapt to climate change, especially those with methane-emitting animals. But this is being further threatened by the increasing middle classes in places like China which are adopting western diets that include red meat.
According to some NGOs at COP21, a cut of 25% in beef production would halve greenhouse gas emissions.
The conference was told that Ireland has joined with France, Italy, and Spain in the “Live Beef Carbon” initiative. It was launched in October aimed at cutting beef carbon footprint by 15% over ten years. Ireland has already begun measuring the carbon footprint of its herds.
Harold Kingston, the IFA’s environment chair, said at COP21 that Ireland was a world leader in sustainable production and “is environmentally sustainable at what we produce”.
Mr Kenny said that because of a “lost decade of investment”, it was not possible to hit targets that should have been achieved in that period. “There isn’t any point in setting out with a huge cliff to climb if you can’t reach it,” he said.
This was in contrast to French President François Hollande opening COP21. He said: “The greatest danger is not that we aim too high and miss, but that we aim too low and hit it. We will decide on the very future of the planet here in Paris over the next few days.”