Agricultural activity emissions (AAE), which account for an estimated 35% of total greenhouse gas equivalents, are slated to be reduced from 23m tonne CO2equiv in 2018 to between 16m and 18m tonne CO2equiv by 2030.

This range represents a reduction of between 22% and 30%. These targets will present major challenges, but they’re not off the chart provided the required implementation mechanisms and incentives are put in place.

Methane accounts for about 60% of total agricultural emissions. Curiously the uniqueness of biogenic methane is not mentioned in the climate plan. Its uniqueness derives from two factors. First, methane, while is has an initial global warming impact which is 28 times as potent as CO2, dissipates in the atmosphere within 12 years, whereas carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide continue to drive global warming pretty much indefinitely. Second, unlike the methane that is produced as a byproduct of fossil fuels and landfills, the production of biogenic methane will be with us as long as we have a livestock industry.

Industries that are heavily dependent on fossil-fuel based energy can continue in business while switching their source of energy to renewables. The livestock sector cannot survive without livestock!

Both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste have expressly stated in recent days that there will not be a policy-induced reduction in the national herd

Unique characteristics

It’s not surprising then that in the absence of any reference to the unique characteristics of biogenic methane that there is no explicit target for biogenic methane or any suggestion that it should be treated separately to the other greenhouse gases generated by agriculture. This is an important point for a few reasons. For one, if biogenic methane were to be reduced by the same level as all agri-gases (22% or 30%), this couldn’t be achieved without a reduction in the national herd.

At best, and this is speculative and dependent on future developments in technology, a reduction of no more than 10% by 2030 would be possible without reducing the national herd. A second point is that both the Taoiseach and the Tanaiste have expressly stated in recent days that there will not be a policy-induced reduction in the national herd.

But if the reduction in biogenic methane were limited to 10%, as indicated in both AgClimatise and in Food Vision 2030, then to achieve either the overall sectoral cut of 22% or 30% implies than the non-methane gases would have to fall by substantially more than these amounts.

Unlikely outcomes

Simple arithmetic indicates that the cut in these gases (mainly nitrous oxide) would have to be reduced by between 60% and 80% plus. It’s very unlikely that this outcome, and certainly the upper level, would be achievable. The lower figure though isn’t far off the 51%.

The climate plan gives a comprehensive run down on the actions to achieve the targets. Most of these actions will be well known at this stage as they are drawn from the Teagasc marginal abatement cost curve (MACC) and AgClimatise. There are a few newish features, however, that are worth noting.

The climate plan is quite explicit in its advocacy of replacing 65% of calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN) by protected urea, which contrasts with AgClimatise.

As an aside, it was welcome to hear the Tanaiste championing both protected urea and low emission slurry spreading (LESS) on last Friday’s Morning Ireland!

There are also very strong commitments to organic and biomethane production.


The commitment to increase the area under organic production to 350,000ha by 2030; an increase of 276,000ha on current levels is certainly ambitious. Whether it can be realised, however, is an altogether different matter.

The fundamental driver is the market return. More grant aid and more research and advisory activity will simply not be sufficient to realise the ambition. The primary pathway for substantially higher organic output has to be through livestock production as additional tillage or horticultural activity will result in the production of higher emissions. We know, for instance, that If 200,000 ha of grasslands were converted to organic tillage we would lose an estimated 1.6m tonne CO2 equivalent per annum that is stored in those grasslands. The problem with the current production of organic beef is that, with the absence of adequate premia, the product gets assimilated with conventional beef.

The intention to increase biomethane production to about 3% of total gas use by 2030 is another novel commitment.

The feedstock is to be food waste and sustainably grown grass. There are definitely opportunities in this area but the economic incentives are the critical drivers. The present level of subsidies compared with those available in Northern Ireland, for instance, are simply insufficient to encourage significant additional production.

I remember visiting a superbly-run biomethane plant a few years ago where it paid the owner to ship the product to the North even though his plant was within a few miles of the national grid.


The key issue then is whether the climate plan will achieve its targets. This will depend on a combination of support measures, farmer incentives and regulation. The establishment of a Fertiliser Register and measures to be set out in a new Nitrates Action Programme will be key in delivering key measures. There is a welcome commitment to investment in new research infrastructure. But the real deficit at present is that we have insufficient top-class scientists involved in climate change research in the sector. A step up in recruitment is needed and a ring fenced investment is urgently required. The same applies to the need for an enhanced advisory effort. At the very least we should have an initiative on climate change similar to the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme (ASSAP) on water quality.

There are no explicit commitments on incentivising farmers to adopt the menu of mitigation measures. There is a reference to the role of the new CAP but also an acknowledgement that additional public and private resources will be needed. The CAP isn’t a bottomless pit and much of the funds that are likely to be available are already spoken for. Likewise there is a welcome commitment to bring forward an initiative on carbon farming. I’m less convinced by the likely benefits of a land-use or diversification review.

In my view the crux then of the climate plan, as far as the achievement of the targets on emissions that are generated by agricultural activity is concerned, is that a big question mark attaches as to whether the investment cost of compliance has been sufficiently considered. While the investment requirements won’t by any means have to all come from the public sector, it’s notable that the climate plan only allocates less than €2bn to agriculture, or less than 2% of the total investment budget, yet we’re reminded throughout that the sector contributes over 35% of emissions.