Climate actions will need to speak a lot louder than words

The success of the Government's carbon-reduction targets for agriculture could depend on how it implements the next CAP

Dark clouds: Agriculture emissions account for a third of the national total. Photo by Roger Jones
Dark clouds: Agriculture emissions account for a third of the national total. Photo by Roger Jones

Alan Matthews

The Government's Climate Action Plan published last week has been widely welcomed as a serious attempt to set out a roadmap to reach our legally binding 2030 emissions targets and the 2050 goal of deep decarbonisation.

Farmers sometimes feel that agricultural emissions are unfairly targeted, pointing to the growing demand for air transport and foreign holidays which are also heavily carbon-intensive.

But the fact remains that agricultural emissions account for 33pc of total national emissions, and 46pc of the emissions covered by our binding EU 2030 target. If Ireland as a whole is to meet its targets, agricultural emissions must decrease.

The Government's approach is to assign reduction targets to individual sectors (energy, transport, buildings, enterprise and waste as well as agriculture) based on minimising the overall cost to the economy of reaching the national 2030 target.

This least cost pathway has been developed on the basis of an economy-wide Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC) developed by McKinsey consultants which incorporates, for the agricultural sector, the marginal abatement cost curve developed by Teagasc.

These abatement cost curves show, for different technologies and interventions and changes in practice, what the expected cost would be and what would be the expected reduction in emissions.

Policies

Lining up all the options across the economy and ranking them from the cheapest to the most expensive shows the Government where the greatest reductions can be made at the minimum cost.

On that basis, agriculture has been assigned a reduction target of 10-15pc relative to projected 2030 emissions with current policies in place (or a 10pc reduction from 2017 levels). In absolute terms, the requirement will be to reduce annual agricultural emissions from 20 million tonnes (Mt) CO2eq in 2017 and 21 Mt CO2eq in 2030 to between 17.5-19 Mt CO2eq in 2030.

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In terms of a carbon budget, the challenge for agriculture is to achieve 16.5-18.5 Mt CO2eq cumulative methane and nitrous oxide emissions abatement between 2021 and 2030 with additional measures.

The business-as-usual projections take account of a further increase in livestock numbers to 2030 including an increase in dairy cow numbers from 1.38 million currently to 1.63 million.

At the same time, they incorporate the steady improvement in the emissions intensity of production seen in both milk and beef production in recent years.

The reduction in emissions must come from additional efforts compared to what farmers are planning to do today.

The additional measures proposed in the Teagasc MACC are by now well-known. Better nitrogen use efficiency through wider adoption of protected urea fertiliser, the use of low-emissions slurry spreading equipment, the inclusion of clover in grassland swards, extended grazing, improved animal genetics and better animal health are the main steps to reducing agricultural emissions.

What is missing from the plan is an estimate of the mitigation contribution expected from each of these measures over the 10-year period, although some estimates are available from the Teagasc MACC.

Perhaps recognising this weakness, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine intends later this year to develop a roadmap to ensure that the future development of the agriculture and land use sectors will be built on environmental sustainability. We must wait until then to see some meat put on the bones of this plan. The Teagasc agricultural mitigation measures included in the climate plan are costed at minus €57 per tonne of CO2eq abated, meaning that they would save farmers money if adopted.

While this is an important message, that climate ambition need not be at the expense of profitability, it also gives rise to a paradox.

Why, if these measures are profitable, have they not already been adopted by farmers?

One possible explanation is that the Teagasc estimates leave out management and other up-front costs. Another is that farmers have their own reasons why they are not willing to adopt these measures.

 Whatever the reason, it highlights that simply identifying potential measures in itself is not sufficient to guarantee adoption.

Unfortunately, the McKinsey consultants overlooked an important element of the Teagasc MACC. This was the part that examined the impact on emissions of differing projections of livestock numbers by 2030. Offering farmers who are currently losing money on drystock farming a way to increase their incomes through an extensification scheme linked to specific environmental outcomes could be a cost-effective way of reducing emissions but is not considered in the plan.

Forestry

The plan acknowledges the importance of promoting diversification of activity at farm level and in the wider rural economy towards low-carbon opportunities.

Forestry is the only alternative enterprise highlighted.

The declining annual rates of afforestation are well known. The plan does not make any additional recommendations to reverse this. A review to identify measures to remove barriers and increase levels of afforestation will be initiated later this year with a brief to report in a year’s time on options and appropriate instruments.

Forestry and agricultural soils have the potential to sequester carbon. An innovative element of the plan is to restore/rewet all raised bogs designated as Special Areas of Conservation as well as reducing emissions from at least 40,000ha of drained organic soils through water table management.

These measures are worth pursuing, although carbon sequestration through these approaches will at some stage reach a satiation level. However, they can help to buy time over the next crucial few decades while research into more durable solutions continues.

Importantly, the plan proposes to accelerate the assessment of feed additives to mitigate methane emissions from enteric fermentation and to establish a research programme into the use of feed additives in grass-based production systems. Investing now in research to tackle these difficult issues is essential in view of the greater challenges ahead in the post-2030 period.

The plan supports the maximum possible environmental and climate ambition in the post-2020 CAP now being developed. Given the importance of CAP funding in supporting Irish agriculture, this is a significant commitment.

The way resources available under the CAP are allocated in the Strategic Plan for the coming period must be consistent with this goal of maximum environmental and climate ambition.

How Ireland makes use of the flexibilities on offer in designing its CAP Strategic Plan will determine whether the target to reduce agricultural emissions by 10pc by 2030 is met or not.

Alan Matthews is Professor, Emeritus of European Agricultural, Policy at Trinity College Dublin

Indo Farming


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