The farm sector will struggle to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by abatement actions alone and a reduction in agricultural activity may be required to meet more stringent climate change targets.

This stark assessment was delivered by leading Teagasc economist Trevor Donnellan at the Agricultural Economics Society of Ireland annual conference in NUI Galway last week.

Agriculture is currently required to cut its GHG emissions by between 22% and 30% from its base level of 22m tonnes. This equates to a reduction of between 4.8m tonnes and 6.6m tonnes by 2030 and imposes an emissions ceiling range of 15.4m tonnes to 17.2m tonnes for farming.

However, Donnellan claimed that these targets were extremely challenging for the sector.

He said scenario analysis indicated that emissions from agriculture were unlikely to dip below 20m tonnes even if there was widespread farmer adoption of abatement measures under the Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC) such as low-emissions slurry spreading, improved breeding and increased protected urea usage.

Food production

Donnellan pointed out that it was “inherently difficult” to reduce emissions from farming “without impacting food production”.

While overall cattle numbers are forecast to fall to 6.75m head by 2030 from 7.24m head in 2018, Donnellan argued that increased dairy cow numbers – which are forecast to reach 1.75m by the end of the decade – will result in emissions staying at relatively high levels.

The Teagasc economist pointed out that dairy farmer incomes averaged in excess of €95,000 last year, and this high level of earnings, compared to beef, would continue to drive dairy expansion at the expense of suckler beef.

Donnellan forecast that suckler cow numbers could fall to 630,000 head by 2030.

Abatement measures

Although abatement measures adopted under the MACC will cut agriculture’s overall GHG emissions, Donnellan maintained that these actions on their own will not be sufficient to meet the 22% to 30% reductions required of the sector under climate change legislation.

For the farm sector to meet the reduced emissions targets, Donnellan told the conference that either a reduction in agricultural activity will be needed or food producers will have to adopt additional mitigation actions beyond MACC.

Trevor Donnellan, Teagasc economist.

These include the use of additives in feed, steeper fertiliser reductions or the earlier slaughter of cattle.

The Teagasc economist stated that smaller reductions in agricultural GHG emissions can be achieved by “technical mitigation alone”.

Worryingly, however, Donnellan explained that the capacity of technical mitigation shrinks where very large reductions in GHG emissions are required, and the emphasis shifts at this point to cutting agricultural activity.

Donnellan’s stark assessment comes as discussions on climate targets continue between senior officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications.

The negotiations are seeking to agree a specific emissions ceiling for agriculture to replace the 22% to 30% range that is currently specified.