A 30% cut to Ireland’s milk and beef output and at least 500,000ha of forestry planting are just two of several huge changes that could be required if Ireland’s land sector is to become climate neutral by 2050, new research published by the EPA has indicated.

Ireland is legally bound by the 2021 climate act to reach net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050.

Some 43% of all of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) come from the combined agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) sector.

The latest research from the SeQUEsTER project, published by the EPA, says that reaching net zero emissions in this sector by 2050 will require five major actions to be taken together:

  • Reducing milk and beef output by 30%, or reducing one output by much more to preserve the other.
  • Widespread adoption of GHG reduction techniques across farms.
  • Planting at least 500,000ha of new forest on mineral soils.
  • Restoring and rewetting degraded peatland; and
  • Wetting of tens of thousands of hectares of peat soils under grassland.
  • Researchers modelled over 3,000 different hypothetical ways to reach net zero, Dr David Styles, lead author on the research told the Irish Farmers Journal.

    The associate professor in University of Galway said that bigger cuts to milk and beef output would be required if less than 500,000ha of forestry was planted, if on-farm carbon emissions were not cut by the maximum amount possible, or if the rewetting of peat bogs and peat grasslands did not happen.

    “We also looked at a scenario that would increase milk production by 30%, but that would decimate the suckler herd,” he said, emphasising that these were just “what-if” scenarios to illustrate the need for a long-term strategy on the future mix of agricultural activities within absolute emissions constraints.

    In another climate-neutral scenario where milk production was maintained at 95% of 2021 levels, suckler beef output would have to be slashed by 94% and forestry would move from covering 11% of Ireland’s total land area to 32%.

    The report’s authors, led by Dr Styles, warned that agricultural emissions reduction, herd reduction and organic soil rewetting would not achieve climate neutrality, either individually or collectively, without very ambitious afforestation levels.

    Maintaining high levels of milk and beef output requires forestry planting 10 times faster than current levels, and at 2.5 times the current Government policy target.

    Urgent need

    The researchers pointed out that new tree planting is “the most effective and scalable carbon sink available in the land sector to 2050”, and is also needed to supply a growing demand for wood products that can store carbon longer-term and reduce emissions elsewhere in the economy.

    However they acknowledged farmers’ antipathy towards forestry as a major hurdle, name-checking cultural opposition to planting land, the cumbersome licensing system and the failure of bioenergy crop subsidies in the mid-2000s as barriers to tree planting.

    Any delays in forestry planting from the current low base will pile further pressure on the national herd in future, the authors noted, adding “‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’ This Chinese proverb will only become more relevant with each passing year.”

    “Delay [in planting trees] will translate into a smaller carbon sink during the second half of this century, and, therefore, less scope for emission-generating activities including livestock production,” they warned.

    Financial cost if targets are not reached

    If Ireland doesn’t achieve its target of being climate neutral by 2050, there will be a severe economic cost, Dr Styles told the Irish Farmers Journal.

    “That cost will depend on a few uncertain factors around emissions accounting, and a robust working definition of climate neutrality for Ireland.

    “But at current emission rates across agriculture and land use, and conservative estimates of future carbon prices, purchasing carbon credits to off-set all emissions would cost the tax payer around €6bn a year,” he warned.

    “Future costs will increase the political pressure to take action, and time to orchestrate a just transition for farmers is diminishing fast.”