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Thursday 17 January 2019

'Cow numbers may be limited if agriculture doesn't step up its efforts to meet climate targets'

Agriculture emissions are projected to increase by between 3-4pc by 2020 and 6-7pc by 2030 on current levels based on an expansion of animal numbers, particularly for the dairy herd.
Agriculture emissions are projected to increase by between 3-4pc by 2020 and 6-7pc by 2030 on current levels based on an expansion of animal numbers, particularly for the dairy herd.

Claire Fox and Ronnie Bellew

The Government could be forced to restrict farming expansion if Ireland is to avoid massive EU fines for not meeting its targets on emissions reduction.

In the starkest assessment to date on the impact dairy and beef expansion is having on emissions levels, new research from Teagasc indicates that climate change targets could become the new quota system for farmers.

Even allowing for the impact of extensive mitigation measures, Ireland’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions post-2020 will be higher than the 2005 levels the EU uses as its benchmark. 

With agriculture accounting for one-third of Ireland’s total GHG emissions, the Government may have to set limits on agricultural growth targets, particularly in the dairy sector.

“Even with all the efforts made, emissions will still be higher than 2005 levels. We could find ourselves in a situation where the Government says that agriculture isn’t reducing emissions, isn’t playing its part, and it (the Government) will decide to limit the size of the agriculture sector,” said

Trevor Donnellan, one of the co-authors of the Teagasc analysis presented at a Department of Agriculture conference on sustainable farming last week.

“Nobody has said this out loud, but unless the sector is seen to make a reduction and grapple with the problem, it will be seen as the bad guy,” Mr Donnellan told the Farming Independent.

“There’s a concern out there that the Government might put a limit on the amount of cows in the country and this poses a risk for farmers looking to expand. Co-ops won’t build new plants because they would be afraid that a limit would be placed on cow numbers.

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“This could be something that happens sooner down the line and before 2030. I don’t want to alarm people, but this has to be clearly thought out.”

Mr Donnellan and his colleagues Gary Lanigan and Kevin Hanrahan analysed six different scenarios for dairy and beef farming growth projections between now and 2030, based

on current farming practices without mitigation measures to reduce emissions.

The scenario based on strong growth in dairy cow numbers and a moderate decrease in suckler cow numbers would see total cattle numbers reach 7.342 million by 2030, a 2pc rise on 2005 levels. 

The scenario based on strong growth in dairy cow numbers and a strong decrease in suckler cow numbers (the lowest cattle population and lowest emissions scenario) would see total cattle numbers decrease 4pc by 2030.

Silver bullet

And while extensive mitigation measures such as more forestry, reduced fertiliser usage, and ‘smart’ farming technologies are in the pipeline, the Teagasc research warns that there is “no silver bullet solution”.

“One opinion out there is that if we increase carbon capacity through forestry that we might be able to get more leeway to produce more greenhouse gases, but there’s only so much that can be done,” said Mr Donnellan.

Mitigation measures will “not absorb the projected increase in activity” warns the Teagasc research which also predicts that the rate of increase in ammonia emissions is higher than for GHGs.  “One of these reduction targets may become the binding constraint in terms of the size of the sector,” notes the Teagasc analysis.

Last month, Denis Naughten, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, told the Dáil that “based on the current trajectory, we will have an enormous challenge to meet our 2030 targets”.

“We need to reconcile our ambitions in Food Wise 2025, the need for food security in the European Union,

carbon leakage in food production and our climate change targets for 2030.”

Inaction on emissions levels could see the EU levy fines of up to €600m per annum on Ireland after 2021, “if targets are not met”, according to  Department of Finance estimates presented to the Public Accounts  Committee.


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