Carbon reduction clock is ticking for farming
Published 23/09/2015 | 02:30
Carbon has rarely weighed heavily on the minds of Ireland's farmers, not even dairy farmers hoping to significantly increase their production following the end of milk quotas.
But carbon should be a concern because Ireland, as part of the EU's climate and energy policies, has limits on the total amount of carbon it can release to the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases.
These limits will bite in the remaining years of this decade. By 2020, the EPA estimates that the sectors covered by our national emissions ceiling, which include agriculture, will be releasing 6-11pc more emissions than allowed under that ceiling. By 2020 agriculture will be responsible for 45pc of those emissions in Ireland, with transport the next most important sector.
This ceiling is set as part of an internal burden-sharing agreement under the EU's Effort Sharing Decision, which allocates the total EU ceiling between the EU member states. Ireland's 2020 target is to reduce its emissions by 20pc compared to 2005.
The EU has begun to put in place its climate policy targets for 2030. The European Council has agreed to an overall target reduction of 30pc in emissions from the sectors covered by the Effort Sharing Decision. It recognises that national circumstances differ, and has agreed that national targets will vary between reductions of 0pc to reductions of 40pc compared to 2005.
The allocation will be done on the basis of relative GDP per capita, but the European Council has agreed to take into account the multiple objectives of agriculture and land use, and their lower mitigation potential is acknowledged.
A best case scenario for Irish agriculture might be that the existing target of a 20pc reduction compared to 2005 is extended to 2030 but the ultimate target could be higher.
Irish negotiators are looking for the lowest possible reductions and the highest possible ceiling.
If Ireland is likely to exceed its ceiling, it can purchase credits from other member states or from international project activities.
Carbon credits are purchased by the Carbon Fund managed by the National Treasury Management Agency.
During the years 2007-2012, €100m was spent to purchase carbon credits although, because of the economic downturn, there has been no need to purchase further credits since 2009.
Purchasing international credits only makes sense if there are no opportunities to reduce emissions within Ireland at a lower cost.
However, Teagasc has identified a number of opportunities within agriculture to reduce emissions at low or even negative cost, that is, where reducing carbon emissions can also help to raise farm income.
These opportunities fall broadly under three headings: improving the efficiency of production systems; identifying technologies to reduce emissions directly; and integrated land management.
Improving the efficiency of production systems reduces the carbon intensity of production directly. Examples include reducing disease incidence, using sexed semen in animal reproduction and extending the grazing season.
A growing number of farmers are now using the Carbon Navigator to benchmark their carbon performance.
Identifying areas for improvement will both help to improve farm productivity and contribute to higher incomes.
Technological solutions to reduce emissions are now intensively researched, and we can expect a stream of promising innovations in the future. Examples include novel fertilisers to reduce nitrous oxide emissions, modifying rumen bacteria to release less methane, and using anaerobic digestion of slurry to reduce emissions and produce bioenergy.
Agriculture is unique in that it can also act as a sink for carbon emissions as well as an emissions source. Sinks are where land use activities help to store or sequester carbon from the atmosphere.
For example, forestry and grasslands can sequester carbon dioxide.
Conversion of grassland to forestry can help to sequester carbon, while conversion of grassland to tillage will release carbon from the soil.
Managing land use to reduce net emissions will be increasingly important in Ireland because credits earned in this way will be allowed to offset our national emissions ceiling in the period after 2020.
Alan Matthews is Professor Emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin.