Farm Ireland

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Climate change debate remains clouded in contradiction but new legal bill has me feeling nervous

John Shirley

There is so much talk about climate change in the air that, last week, I went to a seminar on the topic run by the RDS and the University of Maynooth. What did I learn?

? That while many are sceptical about human involvement in climate change, (if there is climate change), the EU and Ireland – egged on by the Green Party – are not. The EU and Ireland are leading the world in addressing climate change while most of the world is doing nothing.

? Addressing climate change and reducing greenhouse gas* (GHG) emissions will come at a cost – and agriculture, deemed to be a major GHG producer, is vulnerable. In Ireland we already have the carbon tax on fuels. Globally, we have a proposal for a massive levy on developed countries to help finance the Third World to address climate change issues.

? In Ireland, a bill on climate change has been promised since the spring. At the seminar, Department of the Environment speaker Owen Ryan was coy about the contents of this bill, but the Framework Document for the bill envisages that Irish GHG emission targets will become legally binding. This document from Green Party leader John Gormley envisages the establishment of a raft of new Government Green quangos.

? In Ireland, addressing climate change is in direct conflict with the ambitious cow herd expansion targets of Food Harvest 2020. Addressing climate change globally is in conflict with the absolute need to produce extra food for the burgeoning world population.

? In terms of creating GHG emissions, Irish milk and beef is efficient. Globally, it would be nonsensical for Ireland and the EU to reduce cattle numbers while higher emission livestock systems are expanded.

? On the positive side, enhanced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can do wonders for crop growth. From his modelling, NUI Maynooth’s Professor John Sweeney predicted that a 2°C rise in temperature coupled with enriched carbon dioxide would give an enormous boost to Irish cereal yields, especially in the west, but potato yields would be devastated by summer droughts. Equally, summer grass burn-ups in the southeast could lead to cows and livestock in Wexford and Waterford being rehoused in July and August. He predicted that maize will become a major crop in Ireland.

? The switch to growing crops for fuel and the move away from fossil fuels is gathering momentum as new climate change targets come on stream. Bord na Mona is offering 20-year contracts to farmers to grow willow crops. The willow chips will be used to replace peat as the feedstock at Bord na Mona’s Edenderry electricity-generating plant.

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? While energy crops and forestry sequester GHGs from the atmosphere, the credit for this activity is not allocated to agriculture in the national emission statistics.

Overall, the momentum in Ireland and the EU is behind the believers in climate change. This has been brought home to Irish farmers by Bord Bia's move to include environmental sustainability and a carbon count in its Farm Quality Assurance Scheme. This is a world first for Ireland and is expected to get more Irish beef into premium markets.

At the seminar, Teagasc’s Dr Frank O'Mara spoke of steps that Irish farming could take to reduce the emissions. These include beefing cattle at a younger age, using clover rather than bag nitrogen, breeding lower GHG-producing cattle, more efficient use of fertiliser and using nitrification inhibitors to reduce nitrous oxide from pastures. Methane inhibitors in cattle may become available long term.

Meanwhile, though measurement of GHGs is an uncertain science, close to 30pc of Irish emissions are attributed to farming, which puts the sector under the academics’ microscopes.

What’s next? After failing to reach agreement in Copenhagen, another UN climate change conference is scheduled for Cancun, Mexico, later this month.

In the background, some suggest that developed nations should reduce GHGs by as much as 80pc in 30 years time. Nearer to home, Irish farming nervously awaits Mr Gormley's Irish Climate Change Bill.

* Greenhouse gasses include carbon dioxide (mainly from fossil fuel burning), methane (mainly from ruminants) and nitrous oxide (from soil, mainly low organic matter tillage ground)

Irish Independent