“I despair at how the mitigation conversation in this country centres on agriculture,” a leading climate scientist has warned the Joint Oireachtas Agriculture Committee.
Professor Peter Thorne, Director of the Icarus Climate Research Centre at Maynooth University and member of the Climate Change Advisory Council, says this narrative “is making it someone else’s problem for the vast majority of the population who are not farmers”.
In a meeting that questioned the accounting model used to calculate methane emissions from cattle, Prof Thorne agreed “there is a difference” between methane belched out by animals compared to other fossil-based sources despite both gases being treated the same in current national reporting systems.
However, he said Ireland’s performance against the current accountancy system (which uses the contested GWP100 metric believed to overstate the impact of methane from cattle and understate methane from fossil fuels) is what will result, or not result, in Ireland facing fines or penalties from the EU.
It comes as new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figures show Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 4.7pc last year compared to 2020 — with a 17.6pc rise in energy emissions driven by coal and oil, a six per cent rise in transport emissions, and a three per cent hike in agricultural emissions.
It also follows an imminent announcement from Government on the country’s sectoral emissions ceilings, with a definitive cut of between 22pc and 30pc to be set for the farm sector by 2030.
Prof Thorne said: “Methane is one of three greenhouse gases that comes from fossil fuels, ruminants, paddy rice fields and waste — those are the principal sources of that methane.
“Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are responsible for the 1.1 degree, approximately, of warming we have seen to date.
“Methane does differ from the other gases as it is a much shorter-lived gas, but it is also a much more powerful gas.
“It’s the difference, if you like, between your electric heater on the wall and your night storage heater — think of methane as the electric heater that you can switch on and off very quickly, and the other greenhouse gases, the much longer gases, are the night storage heater.
“We have a unique opportunity, scientifically speaking, with methane to turn the heat down that much more quickly because if we are to avoid the worst impacts of warming and keep to 1.5 degrees, we have to reduce methane abundance in the atmosphere, while simultaneously driving CO2 to net zero — we do not stop warming unless we get CO2 to net zero.”
He said “if serious global efforts” had been made on climate change mitigation 30 years ago, “a whole range of different options” would be available to countries now.
However, he added “why methane is important now is we’ve waited and continued to burn fossil fuels for so long that if we are to keep warming to 1.5 degrees, we now have little option but to play with the methane in addition to the longer-lived greenhouse gases to attain that effort”.
“I think we can all agree that methane has a different set of properties, where I would disagree is where, fundamentally, the physics ends and the politics and policy take over.
“On the GWP100, there’s a big problem if we choose to not report in that metric, I would welcome reporting in additional metrics, but for the purpose of the EU ‘Fit for 55’ and the UNFCCC, we will be forced to report in GWP100 whether we like it or not.
“The risk of going our own way on our national approach is that we end up diverging, we end up potentially with huge penalties.
“I would like to see it change. I think there’s a groundswell of opinion that we should treat short-lived forces differently from long-lived forces, but that should be done internationally, and we should look at it then in terms of cascading it here, but I don’t think a single country can do it the opposite way.
“It needs to come from the top down. It would be wrong for us to try and fudge the issue nationally and then have lots of issues in terms of our reporting.”
He added: “I despair of how the mitigation conversation in this country centres, within the second or third question, on agriculture.
“As the late great Douglas Adams would say ‘it is making it somebody else’s problem’ for the vast majority of the population who are not farmers.
“If farmers were successful in getting to net zero, we would still miss our 51pc reduction target because two thirds of our emissions arise from the non-agricultural sectors — we need to be honest with our citizens to make sure we have action across all sectors.
“We need agriculture to play its part, but it must be a meaningful and effective, just transition, protecting our farmers, reinvigorating our rural communities, opening up new markets, and opportunities for them.
“I fundamentally believe in the ingenuity and the adaptability of our agricultural sector if appropriately enabled to address the mitigation challenge before us, but we need to stop playing around with telling farmers every second year ‘to do something different’.
“Farmers need stability for decision-making, they need certainty to make choices that are viable for their businesses. We cannot tell them ‘stop producing milk’, ‘start producing milk’, ‘stop producing milk’ — this is madness.
“We need to get away from ‘them and us’ finger-pointing. I don’t believe for a moment that the agricultural community is deliberately trying to do harm to the environment. Why would they? They rely upon the environment for their job, they’re not wanting to leave their farms in a worse state.
“It’s not all about methane emissions — the vast bulk of the warming to date is down to burning and extraction of fossil fuels.
“We need, fundamentally, to get to net zero CO2, otherwise it’s game over and we’re not going to stop the warming, so don’t let the methane discussion confuse you. We must reduce CO2, that is the absolute imperative.”