Alan Matthews: It's suckler farmers who could gain most from livestock reduction plan

Controversial: The Climate Change Advisory Council recommends incentivising a reduction particularly in suckler cow numbers
Controversial: The Climate Change Advisory Council recommends incentivising a reduction particularly in suckler cow numbers

Alan Matthews

The Climate Change Advisory Council's recent report focusing on the challenge of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector had a mixed reception, including from some columnists in this newspaper.

A closer reading of what the council actually recommended will help to rebut some of the criticisms made.

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The council is required under the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act to recommend to Government the most cost-effective manner of achieving reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in order to enable the achievement of the national transition objective as well as the international obligations of the State.

Ireland has an EU obligation to reduce regulated emissions outside the Emissions Trading Scheme by 20pc compared to 2005 levels by 2020, and by 30pc by 2030.

The agricultural sector contributes 32pc of national emissions, but 45pc of the emissions regulated by EU legislation. The other regulated sectors include transport, heat, waste and small industry.

Emissions from all these sectors must be reduced if Ireland is to avoid contributing to global warming.

Assessing the impact of Irish agriculture on global warming is complicated by the fact that methane, which is a short-lived greenhouse gas, makes up 60pc of its total emissions.

Nonetheless, net emissions from the agricultural and land sectors (including soils and forestry) must fall if Ireland is to meet its medium-run targets and if the combined sectors are to approach carbon neutrality by 2050.

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The recent report is the first time that the council has examined the challenge of reducing agricultural and land sector emissions. It makes a number of recommendations.

First, the council endorses immediate action to implement the measures identified by Teagasc in its Marginal Abatement Cost Curve.

These include extending the grazing season, substituting protected urea for calcium ammonium nitrate, liming to optimise soil pH, low-emissions slurry spreading, improved drainage on wet mineral soils, afforestation, managed re-wetting of organic soils and peatlands, and reduced fossil fuel consumption.

Secondly, the council calls for increased research into longer-term mitigation options, where a high priority should be technologies to reduce methane emissions from ruminant livestock.

There are promising options using either vaccines or feed additives under development, but these may be more readily adopted in confinement systems.

Research to ensure such technologies are also available for grazing livestock should have a high priority to maintain the competitive position of grass-based production systems.

Thirdly, the council sees an opportunity both to reduce emissions and to protect and enhance the income of beef producers by incentivising a reduction particularly in suckler cow numbers.

The critical point is that many beef farmers consistently lose money on beef production and subsidise this activity from either off-farm income or their Basic Payment.

The council recommends that restructuring CAP payments to link a portion of them to a commitment to reduce numbers, what it calls an extensification scheme, could be a win-win situation.

It could maintain or even enhance the income of participating farmers while reducing livestock emissions.

Because of the ongoing situation of low cattle prices, with emotions running high, this recommendation has been widely misunderstood.

The council did not spell out the details of how such a scheme might work; that is not its role.

We can try to add flesh to the bones by suggesting a way in which the council's ideas might be implemented.

Suppose that under the new CAP where the authorities have greater flexibility to design the payments to achieve national objectives, the Government top-sliced some of the Basic Payment money to incentivise a reduction in livestock emissions.

This might be called a Livestock Emissions Reduction Scheme. It would pay farmers for a reduction in their emissions compared to a base year; assume this is 2017.

Just to illustrate how the scheme might work, assume that the payment rate was €35 per tonne of CO2 equivalent abated. This is the rate that the council has recommended the carbon tax in the non-farm sector should be in the coming budget.

Total emissions from the average cattle farm in Ireland in 2017 amounted to just over 140 tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

If a livestock farmer with total emissions of 140 tonnes CO2 equivalent in 2017 agreed to reduce his or her emissions to 100 tonnes by reducing numbers, this would trigger an additional carbon abatement payment of €1,400.

Although the scheme would be open to any livestock farmer, including dairy farmers, those expected to enrol would be those farmers with negative income from beef farming at the moment.

Of course, many details would need further consideration.

Would the scheme pay only for reductions in suckler cow numbers or total livestock numbers?

Would a farmer be paid annually or be asked to enter a multi-year commitment?

Would this payment level be sufficient to incentivise the emissions reduction sought?

These details should be worked on by the Department together with the farm organisations.

The council's report sets out a number of illustrative scenarios relating a reduction in suckler cow numbers to the expected reduction in emissions.

In the most ambitious scenario in which suckler cow numbers halved and returned to pre-milk quota levels and assuming a payment level of €35 per tonne of CO2 equivalent abated, the amount of Basic Payment required to fund this scheme would be €75 million. This represents just over 6pc of the total Basic Payment.

This sum could easily be raised by capping the overall amount of Basic Payment that any farm could receive. This capping would mainly affect feedlot-type cattle rearing operations and some larger dairy farms.

Suckler farmers participating in the scheme would continue to receive their Basic Payment and would in addition receive an Emissions Reduction Payment.

The charge levied at the council that it has unfairly discriminated against suckler farmers is without foundation. In fact, these farmers would gain under the Council's proposal.

Alan Matthews is Professor Emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin and a member of the Climate Change Advisory Council

Climate group's scheme deserves a closer reading - it can enhance beef farmers' incomes while reducing greenhouse gas emissions

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