The impact of agriculture on climate change is likely to be the primary focus of discussions at the UN’s COP 26 Conference in Glasgow next month, according to Professor John Sweeney of NUI Maynooth.

Prof Sweeney claimed that since reducing methane offered a “quick fix” to the immediate challenge of slowing the rise in global temperatures – because it has 85 times the atmospheric heating capability of CO2 – the impact of livestock farming would inevitably be central to the Glasgow negotiations.

Prof Sweeney, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth, said the recent agreement between the US and EU on a 30% cut in overall methane emissions by 2030 confirmed that livestock farming was firmly in the spotlight.


However the Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue, insisted that producing meat and dairy proteins would remain “the bedrock of Ireland’s food industry” into the future, despite the undoubted challenges of climate change.

Both were guests on a webinar hosted by the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce entitled ‘The road to COP 26: the role of the agri-food sector’ on Friday.

While accepting that Ireland faced challenges in terms of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture, and deteriorating water quality, Minister McConalogue pointed out that farming was the cornerstone of the country’s rural economy.

He claimed that “moving away” from “grass-based” livestock production would not make sense for Ireland either “economically or environmentally” as this was “our key competitive advantage”.

But Minister McConalogue said the Irish farm sector would “live up to its climate change obligations” and he pointed out that cuts in overall carbon emissions from farming would be detailed in the upcoming sectoral targets.

Minister McConalogue said the Irish farm sector would “live up to its climate change obligations”

'Unbearable burden'

In a hard-hitting presentation, however, Prof Sweeney warned that granting a “lighter load” in terms of carbon emissions to agriculture would necessitate placing an “unbearable” burden on society and other sectors of the economy such as transport and energy generation.

The preferential treatment of the livestock sector would be divisive among farmers he maintained, and risked “causing an urban-rural divide” which would be “disastrous” for the country.

Moreover, Prof Sweeney claimed there was “no get-out-of-jail-free card for agriculture”, as he maintained that “short-term” carbon removals were “not cutting the mustard”.

The IFA’s Geraldine O’Sullivan accepted that behavioural change was needed from farmers, but she said clarity from Government around funding for this transition was also required.

Farmers realised that climate crisis means they will have to change their business practices and the manner in which they operate their farms, Ms O’Sullivan said, but she pointed out that investment was needed to fund this change.

“We don’t see the signposts there to allow that transition,” she said.

“We see a reduction in direct payments. And where the money goes into eco-schemes, the cost of compliance means that funding is not real income. So we see the vulnerability of farms increasing.”