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'Impossible' targets would undermine agri-sector's 'green image', McConalogue told Ryan

As the debate on farming’s emissions persists, officials from the departments of agriculture and climate came before an Oireachtas committee today.

LAST UPDATE | 20 Jul 2022

AGRICULTURE MINISTER CHARLIE McConalogue told Climate Minister Eamon Ryan that “impossible” targets for reducing emissions would undermine the sector’s “well-established green image”, according to a record held by the Department of Agriculture.

Minutes of a meeting between the two ministers on 21 June detail discussions about the emissions limits that will soon be given to specific sectors, including agriculture, ahead of their expected approval by Cabinet.

The Department of Agriculture released the document under Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) to Noteworthy, Journal Media’s investigative platform.

Minister Ryan outlined the “incredible challenge” for all sectors in setting caps on emissions that comply with the overall carbon budgets.

The government’s Climate Action Plan, published in November 2021, set out draft ranges for what level of reduction each sector could be expected to make by 2030 compared to 2018. For agriculture, that was 22% to 30%, bringing its emissions down to between 16 and 18 Mt.

At the June meeting, the Climate Minister said 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.

He highlighted “the importance of added value and diversification opportunities for farmers in terms of activity and income”, such as solar power or creating biomethane gas from anaerobic digestion.

However, Minister McConalogue said there would be “significant challenges” in reducing emissions by 22%, the minutes recorded.

He said that setting targets that were “impossible to achieve” would “undermine the credibility of the sector and its well-established green image”.

The minutes detail that he said reducing emissions below 18 Mt would require significant reductions in methane “going well beyond what is envisaged anywhere else in the world” and “enormous” displacement of animals, as well as economic and social impacts.

The ministers agreed to engage further on the issue, which is now before an Oireachtas Committee this afternoon.

IFA Deputy President Brian Rushe has previously said the lower 22% target would be “extremely challenging” but “achievable”

The sectoral targets come as part of Ireland’s first-ever carbon budget, which chart a path for the country as a whole to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in three cycles up to 2035.

The first cycle, which lasts until 2025, allows for a total of 295 million tonnes (Mt) of emissions to be produced. For the second cycle, that falls to 200Mt between 2026 and 2030 and drops again to 151 Mt between 2031 and 2035 for the third and final one.

Ryan said at the weekend that he would put forward the sectoral breakdown for Cabinet approval in the coming weeks – “hopefully” by the end of July.

The Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture heard from experts this afternoon on the calculation of Ireland’s methane emissions.

Professor Barry McMullin and Paul Price of DCU said that annual mass emissions of methane in Ireland need to fall by about 50% by 2050 compared to 2018 to meet targets.

“The faster this reduction is achieved, the lower the risk of overshoot of the Irish contribution to global temperature rise.”

Professor Peter Thorne of Maynooth University added that “if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change and keep warming below 1.5 degrees, then globally we must rapidly reduce overall methane emissions whilst also cutting carbon dioxide emissions to net zero”.

A sticking point for agriculture’s impact on climate has been whether cattle numbers may need to be cut to reduce methane emissions.

Earlier today, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told RTÉ News there must be a “stabilisation of the herd”.

“That is important because there has been an exponential growth over the last decade or so. That has to be acknowledged,” he said.

“That said, we’ve got to balance the food security issue with the climate issue.”

Speaking to the committee this afternoon, Professor of Geosystem Science at the University of Oxford Myles Allen told the committee that there is “no question” that increasing the size of herds increases emissions, while the opposite is also true.

He said that Ireland’s emissions reporting should specifically include the impact of emissions on global temperatures and said that could help to alleviate tensions between the agriculture sector and the government.

Currently, there is “unnecessary animosity” between the sector and government, he said.

Dr Frank M Mitloehner, professor and air quality specialist in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis in California, said that to cut methane emissions from livestock, reducing demand would be key.

Otherwise, cutting emissions in one area, such as by limiting cattle, would result in emissions moving from one place to another, he said.

Farmer and founder of the Carbon Removals Action Group John Hourigan said farmers should be allowed to account for gases that their activities remove from the atmosphere in calculations.

Department officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of the Environment also came before the committee to discuss the soon-to-be-implemented sectoral ceilings.

Edwina Love, Principal Officer at the Department of Agriculture, said that “to even achieve the reductions at the lower end of the target range over the decade will require a significant transformational change in the sector on a scale that has not been seen before for Irish agriculture”.

“Measures such as reducing and changing fertiliser type, earlier finishing age of our prime beef animals, increased organics will get us maybe 70% of the way there but further measures including the technological development of methane reducing feed additives and incentivising diversification opportunities for farmers such as growing grass for an expanding anaerobic digestion industry will be needed,” Love said.

“Unfortunately, an unhelpful narrative may have developed that a 5 Mt reduction in the sector is somehow ‘business is usual’, I wish to state for the public record that this is clearly not the case.”

Marc Kierans, Principal Officer at the Department of the Environment, outlined in his opening statement how the department prepared the sectoral emissions ceilings.

Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy criticised the opening statement, saying it had provided no new information to the committee today.

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