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Wednesday 27 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Julien Behal Photography/ Left to right: Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar
# Hitting the ceiling
Crunch time for coalition as agriculture emissions divide parties ahead of Cabinet
Cabinet ministers may approve sectoral targets for reducing emissions on Wednesday – but only if a dispute over agriculture can be resolved.

LAST UPDATE | Jul 25th 2022, 7:02 PM

IT IS CRUNCH time for the coalition as a decision on how far the agriculture sector will be required to reduce its emissions this decade comes to a head, with clashes within and between government parties.

Cabinet ministers are set to meet on Wednesday, two weeks after the Dáil recess commenced, to handle outstanding business.

That may finally include a decision on whether to approve a sector-by-sector breakdown of emissions reductions – but only if a proposal is brought forward detailing specific targets, which has been held up by a dispute over agriculture.

Electricity, transport, buildings, industry, agriculture and land use & forestry will each be told how much they need to cut the greenhouse gas emissions they produce by 2030 compared to 2018.

The Climate Action Plan 2021, published last November, set out draft ranges for reduction targets, including 22% to 30% for agriculture, the lowest target of any sector despite its high emissions.

Cabinet must approve a specific target for each sector but divisions in the three coalition parties, along with resistance from the sector against a target higher than 22%, have led to lengthy talks between the Department of Environment and Department of Agriculture. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has often reiterated the idea that all sectors must play their part in meeting Ireland’s climate goals.

At the Dublin Climate Summit two months ago, he said that no sector is or can be unaffected by the “all-encompassing” transition needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Delivering this will require all of our efforts, working together. An honest conversation and a shared acceptance that we all need to change so much of how we do things will be vital if we are to succeed,” he said.

However, depending on what comes before Cabinet, he now faces a situation of either accepting a lower agriculture target, appeasing some TDs and farmers but putting climate action in jeopardy, or agreeing to a higher target, sending a clear signal on climate but without the backing of his backbenchers – or his minister for agriculture, a party colleague.

Fianna Fáil TD for Tipperary Jackie Cahill is among those fighting against a 30% target, telling RTÉ Radio One this morning that there is “buy-in” among farmers for a 22% reduction.

And Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue of Fianna Fáil, who has been at the centre of discussions, said yesterday on Newstalk that he wants to ensure the target will minimise emissions but still “backs family farms”

He said he hoped the limit would be agreed ahead of Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting.

Meanwhile, for Climate Minister Eamon Ryan, a lower agriculture target would be a disappointment for the Green Party.

It’s a point of contention within Government parties but also between them. As the Green Party presses for higher targets and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs push against them, it is an issue that risks widening cracks in the coalition.

McConalogue told Ryan that setting the target to an “impossible” level would “undermine the credibility of the sector and its well-established green image”.

The minutes of a meeting between the two ministers on 21 June, released to Journal Media’s investigative platform Noteworthy, show Ryan telling McConalogue that all sectors would be required to reach their higher level of ambition and that for agriculture, that would require emissions to be cut to 16 Mt (metric tonnes metric tonnes – one Mt is equal to 1,000 kilograms).

In the month since, that certainty from Ryan has come into doubt as coalition politicians showed a lack of appetite for a high target for agriculture.

But no one has resisted the target as fiercely as farmers, who have argued that a high ask on emissions would threaten their livelihoods.

They have also taken issue with how emissions and reductions are calculated, saying that farmers will not receive all the benefit of positive measures – for instance, that installing solar panels on farms could be credited to the energy sector rather than agriculture.

Last week, the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture convened to discuss emissions, where one speaker – Professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford Myles Allen – insisted there should not be conflict between the government and the agriculture sector, describing an “unnecessary animosity”.

The Irish Farmers Association has been vocal in its stance against a high target to reduce its sector’s emissions, suggesting that 22% would be difficult but achievable and that a target beyond that would be unrealistic.

In opposition, Sinn Féin has held back from naming a figure it believes should be landed on, with TDs suggesting they need more information from the government – a position Fine Gael has lambasted and called “hypocritical”.

At last week’s Oireachtas committee, Sinn Féin TD for Cavan-Monaghan Matt Carthy criticised an opening statement by a civil servant in the Department of the Environment, saying it had provided no new information.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently published its provisional figures for Ireland’s 2021 greenhouse gas emissions, which show a 4.7% increase compared to the year before.

Emissions had previously decreased by 3.6% in 2020 compared to 2019, much of which was due to the pandemic, but also by 4.5% the year before. 

People Before Profit TD and climate spokesperson Bríd Smith, responding to the EPA report, said in a statement that the figures “showed that Ireland is not only lagging far behind its targets for greenhouse gas reductions but that the increases reported show that without radical action our emissions will continue to soar”.

“No sector can have a get-out-of-jail-free card, especially agriculture which must reach at least 30%. To do this we must reduce the herd in this country and reward farmers for that loss, supporting alternative and more sustainable farming methods,” Smith said.

“The model of meat production for export is not sustainable. Europe is burning and yet we have interest groups pushing hard for their sector to do the bare minimum in terms of reductions. No sector can get a free pass on this.”

The National Inventory Report, an EPA report published in 2021, outlined that livestock plays a key role in how much emissions the agriculture sector produces along with other factors such as soil management.

“Emissions in 2019 were 21,479.7 kt CO2 eq, representing a 15.6% increase on the total emissions in 2011. This was primarily driven by an increase in cattle number of 10.6% between 2011 and 2019,” the report said.

It recorded nine key categories where agriculture’s emissions come from, including enteric fermentation – a part of digestion that produces the greenhouse gas methane – of dairy cattle, non-dairy cattle and sheep and the management of methane produced from the manure of dairy cattle, cattle and pigs.

It also includes direct and indirect emissions from soil, such as from fertilisers, and liming, a practice used to reduce soil acidity and improve plant growth.

More minor sources are enteric fermentation of pigs and other livestock; manure management of other animals; and the application of urea fertiliser.

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