The national herd must be cut, further emission-reducing measures introduced and farmers mentored, if the country is to meet reach its climate targets.
That’s according to the Climate Change Advisory Council annual review, which reported that while national emissions reduced by 0.1pc from 2017 to 2018, this was largely due to progress in the electricity sector, and Ireland will not meet its 2020 climate targets, as other sectors have not delivered emissions reductions on the scale required, including agriculture.
The report also says policy needs to ensure that cattle numbers are consistent with “both market realities and environmental and biophysical constraints”, which it says is not the case at the moment.
Some sectors, such as agriculture, present little or no correlation with economic growth, it says.
There is “incontrovertible evidence that the current level of livestock output (milk and meat) exceeds the sustainable level of output given current technologies”.
Agriculture accounted for 33.9pc of the total greenhouse gas emissions in 2018 and key drivers from 2017 to 2018, the report states, are due to increased dairy production in the sector.
“The observed trend in the expansion of the national dairy herd has been the major contributor to increases in agricultural emissions in recent years.”
The “one dominating challenge in addressing greenhouse gas emissions” is from ruminant farming, it says and it’s a problem that will increase beyond 2030.
“Enteric methane accounts for 56pc of emissions, and there is no system or technology at present available to reduce such emissions at scale at acceptable cost. If this situation prevails, the only way to reduce emissions at scale is to reduce levels of production.”
The report also states that improvements in production efficiency will not be enough to meet mitigation targets and that in the light of significant risk of under-achievement of the ambitious deployment rates of measures in the Climate Action Plan, there is a need to consider the implementation of additional measures as a contingency.
These measures “There are specific challenges in implementation of mitigation measures across the sector, for example the uptake of alternative fertilisers, as well as the estimation and reporting of carbon emissions and removals associated with land management.”
Irish farmers though it says have “little if any experience of implementing actions that directly reduce greenhouse gas emissions” and will need “a lot of support, mentoring and information particularly the findings of research to enable rapid deployment of measures as they transition their farms to a lower emissions status”.
The report says CAP funding could be used to increase knowledge transfer activities, advisory services and support for farmer-driven partnerships dedicated to reducing net emissions.
It says that the delay in the introduction of a new CAP is an opportunity for the EU’s farm to Fork and Biodiversity Strategies to be reflected in Ireland’s CAP strategic plan.
Teagasc figures, it says, show that a high proportion of beef farmers fail to generate a positive net margin, even taking account of very significant transfers from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and national payments and the high border protection for EU beef production, as well as the availability of coupled payments.
“The low income on many beef farms is a long-standing issue and the recent period of low prices has exacerbated this. There is a legitimate need for support for farmers with low incomes. A more effective use of taxpayers’ money would be to couple this support to the provision of environmental outcomes, including emissions reductions and removals, rather than to animal numbers.
“Its economic sustainability is beyond doubt, but its current environmental footprint is not sustainable.”
Council member Professor Frank Convery said there is great potential under the new CAP to reconfigure payments in a way that would support farm incomes better and incentivise farmers to reduce emissions.
He said there is an opportunity for a greater focus on environmental outcomes and to reduce stock numbers.
Changes in land use, he said, is the other way to reduce emissions, including increasing forestry levels, which can also add to farm profitability.
The key, he said is to pay farmers for delivering public goods.
The report also warns that low afforestation rates are undermining sectoral mitigation targets, while the management of national grasslands and peatlands continues to be a significant source of emissions.
It also states that opportunities exist for many co-benefits from rewetting bogs and afforestation if effectively implemented, including eco-tourism, biodiversity, water quality and local amenity value.
The Council’s report also states that the rate of afforestation in 2018 fell to 4,025ha from a high of nearly 23,000ha in 1996, with provisional figures for 2019 falling further to 3,550ha.
“At these rates, Ireland will not attain the national forest policy goals for 18pc forest cover by mid-century.”
It also says that forestry has the potential to transform from being a sink to a source by 2030.
The Council recommends that CAP income support payments should better support and encourage farmers to reduce emissions, including through reducing animal numbers and/or using their land more profitably, while providing additional positive environmental outcomes.
Specific policy innovation to encourage and enable higher rates of afforestation and improved management of high carbon soils, including peatlands are required.