Alan Matthews: 'How to move from our current land use structure to one that is compatible with our climate targets'


Communications Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke
Communications Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke

Alan Matthews

There has been a dramatic ramping up of interest in climate policy in the past two months. At the beginning of October, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report underlined the acute nature of climate change, calling for immediate action.

Richard Bruton, following his appointment as Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment to succeed Denis Naughten, has declared his ambition to make Ireland a leader in responding to climate change, not a follower.

The Cabinet has now given its approval for the preparation of a new climate plan to replace the National Mitigation Plan published in July 2017. This was widely seen as failing to provide the necessary roadmap to a low-carbon society by 2050. Part of the context is the growing awareness of the cost to the economy of the failure to meet EU climate targets in 2020 and the following decade.

This new climate plan is required as part of the preparation of a draft National Energy and Climate Plan which must be submitted to the European Commission by the end of this year. It must set out detailed policy measures to demonstrate that Ireland is doing its part to meet EU energy and climate targets. The final plan will be developed in an iterative process with the Commission in the course of 2019.

The special Oireachtas committee on climate change, which was set up in July to consider the report and recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly on how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change, has also been taking evidence from a wide range of stakeholders.

In early November, it heard evidence from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the steps it was taking to address greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector. The committee is expected to report its conclusions and recommendations to both houses of the Oireachtas by January 31, 2019.

Despite the failure to increase the carbon tax in the recent budget, the Government accepts that a higher carbon tax will be part of its future climate plan, but it seeks all-party support.

IFA submission

This paper's Environment Correspondent reported last week that the Oireachtas climate change committee might be tasked with setting a carbon price for 2030 and considering how it would be reached; assessing its impact on households and businesses and considering how the revenue would be redistributed.

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The IFA made a submission in connection with the initial consultation on the draft National Energy and Climate Plan which set out its recommendations on how agricultural production should be treated in the draft plan.

It pointed out that the sector has increased production since 1990 without any increase in emissions, reflecting improvements in the carbon efficiency of production over that period.

Continuing improvements in carbon efficiency must continue to be a central objective of policy, along with measures to increase carbon sequestration in soils and forests, and to promote bioenergy as a substitute for fossil fuels.

Voluntary initiatives such as Origin Green and farm advice based on the Carbon Navigator, as well as the Smart Farming Initiative run jointly by the IFA and the Environmental Protection Agency, play an important role in raising awareness and highlighting steps that farmers can take on their farms. Robust monitoring of emission reductions is important to maintain the credibility of these schemes.

The Department, in its evidence before the Oireachtas committee, underlined the various supports in place to encourage farmers to adopt low-carbon practices, including the beef genomics scheme, targeted investment support and agri-environment measures funded through GLAS.

It noted that, under the Commission's legislative proposal for the CAP post 2020, a higher level of climate ambition would be required as part of the CAP Strategic Plan which will be developed in the course of the coming year, depending on how quickly the Commission's proposal is processed through the EU legislative system.

Tackling emissions by improving carbon efficiency and reducing the carbon intensity per kg of output is attractive to farmers because the measures taken often reduce unit costs and improve profitability at the same time.

But this is also the limitation of this approach. Improved profitability has a rebound effect in that it encourages an expansion of output, thereby offsetting either partly or wholly the reduction in emissions due to improved efficiency. If agricultural emissions are to reduce in absolute terms and not just flatten out, more will be required.

This is why it is important not just to look at the potential to reduce emissions in individual sectors but also to consider land use in a more holistic sense. What uses of land will be compatible in 2030 or 2050 with a commitment to approach carbon neutrality in the agriculture and land use sectors?

Some parts of the answer are known. They include a greater area under forestry, some re-wetting of peatlands, more use of energy crops and agro-forestry, as well as greater attention to the provision of eco-system services including biodiversity and flood management. The extent of the changes we need to make should be clearly spelled out in the forthcoming climate plan.

Then there is the question of how to move from our current land use structure to one that is compatible with our climate targets.

Farmers respond to incentives, whether these are the result of market signals or public policy in the form of regulations and subsidies. Public policy needs to be consistent with the transformation required. This applies particularly to the design of CAP payments, given the hugely important role they play in maintaining farm income in Ireland.

The Commission's draft CAP proposal would give member states such as Ireland much greater flexibility to design their own interventions, including potentially a new eco-scheme in Pillar 1.

If the new Climate Action Minister's words about making Ireland a leader in responding to climate change are to mean anything, this must become the priority in designing Ireland's national CAP plan.

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

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