Forestry planting levels are expected to fall further behind Government targets even as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the farming sector continue to rise, agriculture chiefs have conceded.
The Government is pinning a big part of its climate action strategy on forestry, but in a Dáil grilling, Department of Agriculture general secretary Brendan Gleeson admitted that targets are nowhere near being met, and hitting them would be "a real challenge".
Mr Gleeson also warned that each additional acre of forestry could be "more difficult to deliver", implying that much of the suitable land had already been planted.
He described agriculture emissions as "a big ship to turn around" and said he wouldn't be confident emissions would go down next year.
There appears to be a major disparity between the Government planting targets and the reality of what is achievable: the target is 8,000ha a year, yet just 4,250ha was planted in 2018.
The EPA last week revealed that agriculture emissions increased by 1.9pc in 2018, with the most significant drivers being higher dairy cow numbers (+2.7pc).
The EPA said dairy cow numbers increased by 27pc in the last five years, while greenhouse gas emissions increased by 8pc.
The EPA said that while agricultural production has gained some efficiencies, these will not be enough to deliver overall emission reductions.
It said that full implementation of the measures in the Climate Action Plan was required. The plan sets out that agriculture emissions must reduce by 10-15pc by 2030.
The upshot is that farmers will have to make "significant changes" to how they operate, according to Minister for Climate Action, Richard Bruton.
An Taisce called for an immediate cap on chemical inputs and imported animal feeds.
In the Dáil Public Accounts Committee hearing, Seamus McCarthy, Comptroller and Auditor General, highlighted a consistent underspend in the forestry programme and recommended a cost-benefit analysis be carried out.
Mr Gleeson said there are a number of reasons why forestry planting was behind target, including a natural resistance among farmers, not helped by a "fair bit' of negative publicity about forestry.
He said the requirement to keep land planted forever made farmers reluctant to plant, but explained: "If we don't have that replanting obligation, the risk is that people will start to deforest."
He poured cold water on EU Commissioner Phil Hogan's proposal that there would be a requirement for every farmer to plant a hectare of trees.
Mr Gleeson said it looks like the overall size of the national herd is stabilising.
However, in a warning to farmers, he said the Department is required to engage in action quickly to turn things around.