Ireland can’t avoid climate obligations forever

Appealing for special treatment because agricultural emissions are harder to reduce won’t wash much longer, writes Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill
Ireland can’t avoid climate obligations forever

IRELAND is a reluctant hanger-on in the new industrial revolution being ushered in by the agreement at the UN climate conference in Paris.

This week, Ireland will again be on the back foot, when EU agriculture ministers meet today, when EU environment ministers meet on Wednesday, and then at the two-day EU leaders’ meeting.

The future of Ireland’s economy, and especially of its agriculture, will be decided over the next year at EU level. The targeted 30% cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 has been achieved by the Union overall, and the next huge step will be a 40% reduction by 2030. Just as having the fastest-growing economy in the developed world is not mitigating Ireland’s semi-pariah status on corporation tax, it is unlikely to help its case for special treatment in the next round of climate talks in Brussels.

Uniquely, the highest source of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions is agriculture, at 42%, followed by transport, at 30%. There are parallels with Ireland’s position on corporation tax. The Government’s case is that they are removing as many of the loopholes as they have control over, e.g. no longer allowing companies to register as of no fixed abode and so liable to pay tax nowhere. But, the Government insists, many of the rest of the EU’s demands can only be met when the rest of the world does likewise, so as to ensure Ireland Inc is not put at a disadvantage.

But the agreement in Paris means that Ireland cannot make the same case for its agriculture, as all countries have committed to the same target, so that the atmosphere will not have to absorb any additional greenhouse gases after it peaks — it is hoped — in 2025.

Ireland’s emissions will come under the spotlight immediately, because the EU is about to add targets for two additional greenhouse gases, methane and ammonia, to its current list. These gases largely come from agriculture.

The European Parliament insists that methane emissions from ruminant animals — largely cattle and sheep — should not be included, but imminent negotiations with the council of member states and the Commission will decide whether this will be the final outcome. When EU leaders discuss the outcome of COP21, at their meeting on Thursday and Friday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny will doubtless repeat what he told the Paris conference, that Ireland was making big, and unique, efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of its agriculture. And that if Ireland is not allowed to rear cattle, then others will at a higher carbon cost.

But his case will be weakened because Ireland will be one of just four countries that will not meet what is called their non-ETS targets — those for which they cannot carbon trade. At a time when the overall EU target for a 20% cut by 2020 has been achieved, Ireland’s own projection suggests the country will cut between 8% and 10%, compared to the 20% target set for it.

Public transport emissions are expected to increase by 19% between 2013 and 2020. The Commission notes: “Ireland lacks public transport, in particular in Dublin, and electro-mobility infrastructure”. And its commuters have one of the most time-consuming journeys to work in the EU.

Emissions from farming are projected to increase by 2%, at a time when the country’s policy for its largest indigenous industry has brought a 50% increase in the national herd.

The targets set in 2005 were based on member states’ GDP. While the Taoiseach has argued that the economic crisis meant that Ireland could not afford measures to cut its carbon footprint, having a 7% growth rate will undermine this as a basis for getting lower targets for the next decade. Irish civil servants have been working hard, and with some success, to change the ground rules, including agreement that the countries with above EU average GDP will have their targets adjusted “to reflect cost-effectiveness in a fair and balanced manner”.

EU leaders also agreed that emissions from agriculture were more difficult to reduce and targets had to take account of the need to ensure a secure supply of food. Forestry will also be recognised as an absorber of carbon, and so a country’s trees can be offset against its production of greenhouse gases.

But how long Ireland can sustain its demand to be treated as a special case is another issue. Food arguments can be countered. More nutrition can be provided for far less environmental cost than beef. And the intention to reduce the beef herd and increase dairying could be undermined by the plan to remove lactose from the milk, and to fly it at considerable emission cost to China, where it will be turned into processed food products.

As Lord Nicolas Stern, who produced a ground-breaking 2006 study on climate change, concluded, the answer for Ireland may be offsets — paying countries in South America to retain their forests, for example. Prof Alan Matthews says the EU will also introduce its internal offset system, where Ireland can buy credits from other countries, like Latvia. But most Irish farmers raise cattle at a loss, and only remain in business because the EU taxpayer is subsidising them. With offsets, the Irish taxpayer will be asked to subsidise them on the double.

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