Over the next few months, a decision on the future of Irish agriculture will be taken that may prove to be as momentous as the introduction of the milk quota in 1984, or indeed our entry to the EU in 1973.
I’m referring, of course, to the determination of the sectoral carbon budgets for the periods 2021-2025 and 2026-2030.
The new Climate Change Advisory Council is expected to produce national budgets for these periods by the middle of June or at the latest early July, or as soon as possible following the enactment of the climate bill.
It will be the responsibility of the Government to allocate these budgets to each sector, including agriculture. It’s likely that this process could take several months given the nature of the inter-sectoral tradeoffs that will come into play.
The target in the bill, following on from the programme for government, requires a reduction of 51% in total emissions by 2030 relative to 2018
The council will be obliged to follow the legislation to the letter.
As with any draft legislation, there are question marks over interpretation in places, particularly concerning whether “removals” or sequestration (afforestation, etc) are to be included in the targets and the treatment of biogenic methane.
The target in the bill, following on from the programme for government, requires a reduction of 51% in total emissions by 2030 relative to 2018. This is twice the target that was agreed just two years ago by the last government.
For agriculture, a 51% reduction is nearly three and a half times the top range of the target, which was agreed at – 10% to – 15%.
Whatever the sectoral target that’s to be determined, it would be most surprising if “removals” were not to be counted.
After all, the target set in the original bill included a total of 26.8mt of CO2-equivalent “removals”.
The apparent absence of “removals” in the carbon budgets in the bill may be no more than a drafting slip and this can be easily rectified
It was expected that to enable the much higher targets to be achieved that a substantially higher level of “removals” would be required.
And there are a number of possibilities for additional “removals”, including hedgerows, farm woodlands and perhaps, towards the end of the decade, grasslands.
The apparent absence of “removals” in the carbon budgets in the bill may be no more than a drafting slip and this can be easily rectified.
However, the treatment of biogenic methane may be less tractable.
There has been agreement within the scientific community for several years that biogenic methane is different to other greenhouse gases (GHGs) in its impact on global warming.
While the pulse effect of biogenic methane emissions has a very high initial impact on global warming, this effect becomes quickly dissipated, unlike other powerful GHGs such as carbon dioxide and indeed nitrous oxide.
As long as biogenic methane can be stabilised, its impact on climate warming will be neutralised.
And since about two-thirds of agricultural emissions are made up of biogenic methane, this would be a phenomenal achievement as we’d be well on the way to achieving net-zero carbon.
The Teagasc analysis of the original bill was that if the measures in the Teagasc marginal abatement cost curve (MACC) were implemented, and if animal numbers could be stabilised, then it was possible to achieve an emissions reductions target of between 10% and 15%.
The recent AgClimatise publication updated this assessment and with the addition of a 20% reduction in chemical nitrogen usage, concluded that the original targets were still achievable.
This scientific perspective on biogenic methane is accepted by Teagasc and was articulated in the recent deliberations on the agri-food strategy to 2030.
The sector will face a huge challenge
Consistent with the science, the 2030 strategy has recommended that a separate target of a 10% reduction by 2030 be set for biogenic methane.
The bill, however, on some readings at any rate, does not appear to accept this viewpoint.
If there is no distinction to be drawn in the determination of carbon budgets between biogenic methane and other GHGs at the national level, then the sector will face a huge challenge when it comes to the allocation of the national carbon budgets by sector.
A little arithmetic will help to clarify the scale of the challenge that is potentially facing agriculture.
If agricultural emissions were to fall significantly short of the overall 51% reduction, it means that the non-agricultural sectors will have to reduce their emissions by substantially more than 51%.
For example, if agriculture were required to reduce its emissions by 15% (the upper limit in the original bill), then the non-agricultural sectors would have to reduce their emissions by 80%.
Even if agriculture were required to reduce its emissions by, for instance, 33%, then the non-agricultural sectors would have to cut their emissions by 60%.
Faced with these kinds of tradeoffs, it’s evident that the sector will have a considerable battle on its hands.
Land suitability and poor profitability renders most alternatives that have been put forward unfit for the task of replacing reduced activity
A cut of 33% in emissions, which is well short of the 51% national target, will of course have a major impact on the sector itself and on the processing and upstream and downstream sectors. Alternative options are not available on any significant scale, at least over the next decade.
Land suitability and poor profitability renders most alternatives that have been put forward unfit for the task of replacing reduced activity.
There will always be niche opportunities that will be pursued by entrepreneurial farmers but the scale of adjustment that would be required, even for a 33% cut, will require options that can be readily mainstreamed.
For any given emissions reduction that is imposed on the sector, the split between biogenic methane and other GHGs will be important from the perspective of feasibility.
Again, let’s assume that the sector is required to reduce emissions by 33%. If biogenic methane emissions were required to fall by 10% by 2030, then other agricultural emissions would have to fall by 77% to achieve the overall 33% reduction.
If the biogenic methane reduction were to be doubled to 20%, then the other gases would need to be reduced by 58%.
Reductions of non-methane emissions by 77% or 58% are very difficult to envisage actually happening and, at the very best, it would take a considerable period of time for changes of this magnitude to be achieved.
In conclusion, potentially momentous decisions for the agricultural sector will be taken over the next six months.
Clarification is urgently needed on the inclusion of “removals” and the treatment of biogenic methane in the climate bill. Livelihoods are at stake within farming and in the wider rural economy.
Measures will also be needed to enable farmers to shift from existing enterprises to other profitable and sustainable alternatives
Science has provided solutions and more are in the pipeline. Teagasc will shortly launch its SignPost programme in collaboration with industry partners. But policies will be needed to enable and encourage farmers to adopt carbon mitigation and sequestration measures.
Measures will also be needed to enable farmers to shift from existing enterprises to other profitable and sustainable alternatives.
Farmers haven’t yet received much mention in the debate on “Just Transition” in the context of climate change but, given the scale of adjustment that could be required within the sector, this will more than likely change in the weeks and months ahead.