New trees plan to lessen emissions
Farmers could be forced to plant new trees and grassland to cancel out pollution caused by the burping and belching of cows under new climate laws.
As cross-party politicians warned farms should go from being responsible for almost one third of Ireland's greenhouse emissions to completely carbon neutral by 2050, farmers dismissed the ambition as unrealistic.
Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) president John Bryan said the idea would have to be matched by grants to improve efficiency on farms and carbon sinks.
With emission levels from the Irish agricultural sector currently much higher than the European Union average, the Government has been urged to set a new target in revised climate change laws due in the coming months.
According to the Oireachtas Environment Committee, agriculture contributes about 30% of the country's carbon emissions - compared to an EU average of less than 10%.
Environmental coalition Stop Climate Chaos said welcomed the committee's efforts to improve legislation but spokesman Oisin Coghlan said it should have more specific targets.
"One disappointing aspect of the report is that it falls shy of proposing that specific carbon emissions reduction targets should be set for 2050," Mr Coghlan said.
"Stop Climate Chaos remains convinced that the simplest and most effective way to ensure Ireland adheres to its commitment to reduce carbon emissions is by enshrining a numeric target in law. The fact that this hasn't been proposed in this report is a missed opportunity."
Studies claim cows can emit anywhere from 100 litres, or about 26-53 gallons, to 500 litres, about 132 gallons, of methane a day mainly through burping but also flatulence as they chew the cud.
The gas is about 23 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.
The committee's report warned that the relatively high levels of carbon emissions from farming "poses particular difficulties" to meeting national carbon emission targets already agreed for 2020.
In its report on the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2013, the committee recommended that efforts are made to tackle carbon emissions in farming as they are in other sectors such as transport, waste and building.
It is hoped those other industries will one day reach a target of zero emissions. For agriculture, the goal is carbon neutrality.
To achieve this, farmers would have to ensure that for all carbon emitted from their gassy cattle and fertilisers, the same amount must be absorbed in carbon sinks such as forestry, grassland and renewable crops.
The IFA described the report as "a pragmatic approach towards achieving a better balance between the need to reduce emissions and the sustainable growth of the agri-food sector".
Mr Bryan added: "Ireland's emission reduction targets are already established in EU law and the obligations and sanctions are clearly set out. It is important now that the debate moves to how to achieve these emission reductions as opposed to how much."
Committee chairman Michael McCarthy said: "Climate change is one of the key issues facing the world today and it is important that we formulate the necessary policy and legislation to help Ireland move to a low carbon and environmentally sustainable economy and society."
The committee insisted it still recognises the "strategic national importance" of agriculture in Ireland.
It said while there has been some reduction in carbon emissions within the farming sector over the last 20 years, there are concerns that increased cattle numbers may have implications for fertiliser-related emissions.
Mr McCarthy said the report would play a key role in informing the Government's position on a new national policy on moving to a low-carbon future.
Environment Minister Phil Hogan is due to finalise the introduction of climate legislation by the end of the year.