Last week, we learned that Irish greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were similar in 2023 to what they were the year before with negligible further progress being made on the road to delivering the 51% reduction in emissions by 2030 as required by the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021.

Taking a glass-half-full approach, it is positive to note that in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) latest report, there is a roadmap to delivering a 29% reduction if all the measures identified to drive reduction are implemented.

That is not where the Government wants to be but in the context of a wider global rowing back on ambitious targets, it should be recognised as good and meaningful progress rather than failure.

Taking the example of our closest neighbours, the UK government has delayed the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030 until 2035 and has announced the granting of 100 oil and gas production licences for the North Sea.

In Scotland, the first minister had to resign following the Green party leaving his coalition administration following his decision to abandon Scotland’s target of achieving a 75% reduction in emissions by 2030.

Setting targets and even legislating to make them law is one thing, delivering them while maintaining economic performance and lifestyle expected by society is another.


In the Irish context, as indeed elsewhere, there is ongoing conflict between doing what is required to achieve a dramatic reduction in the output of emissions while preserving the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed.

In this conflict, the default position of most is to look for reductions being made in sectors that least impact themselves. Residents in Dublin, the best-served part of the country with public transport, want to keep their premium 4x4 vehicles for the school run and get on a plane for a summer holiday and perhaps a weekend break or two for a rugby match as well.

The easiest place for this cohort of people to look for reductions is in agriculture, as it is the sector with emissions that they are furthest removed from.

Of course, this works both ways – farmers will equally point the finger at urban dwellers and their consumption of goods and services as a source of emissions that should be tackled ahead of on-farm reductions.

The debate gets further heated when we bring the role of economic development into the conversation.

Data centres are energy-hungry, but a revenue generator for the State and business organisations have actively been lobbying for the expansion of Dublin Airport capacity from 32m people to 40m people annually. The argument is that the ongoing prosperity of the country depends on these expansions and if we want an emissions reduction, then we should be looking elsewhere.

International dimension

Emissions are a global problem and despite efforts through various forums to achieve a global response, the results have been, at best, patchy. Fingers get pointed at Irish dairy expansion over the past decade before and after the ending of milk quotas in 2015.

As we can see in Figure 1, dairy cow numbers have indeed increased over the past decade, rising from 1.2m in 2013 to almost 1.7m in 2023. Of course, the same graph shows a year-on-year decline in suckler-bred cows, falling from 1.1m head in 2013 to less than 845,000 in 2023.

When both are combined, Ireland has 201,528 more breeding cows in 2023 than a decade earlier. Dairy expansion has resulted in an increase in dairy cow numbers, but a large chunk of this increase has come at the expense of falling suckler cow numbers, meaning a relatively small increase overall.

Ireland has not been unique in seeing an increase in its cattle numbers over the past decade.

Figure 2 shows the picture in Brazil over the past decade and a forecast for the decade ahead. Their overall cattle herd has increased from 179.5m in 2012 to 202.8m in 2022 – that is an extra 23.5m cattle.

To put this in context, the increase in Brazil’s cattle numbers since 2012 is three times the total size of Ireland’s national herd.

What’s more, it is not finished yet with numbers forecast to grow further, up to 209.2m by 2027, falling back to 204.8m by 2032. Needless to say, it does not have legislation in place requiring a 25% reduction in emissions from its agricultural sector.

The dilemma

In one way, it is unfair to blame Brazil for this expansion, as it can argue it has had a huge land mass that has remained uncultivated before now and has remained as forest in the same way that huge areas of Europe, including Ireland, were up until a few hundred years ago.

They would argue that by clearing forest for livestock production, they are only doing what European farmers did though a lot later.

If as a society we are serious about tackling climate change, then it should be a collective global effort. In an Irish context, it is pointless shunting the blame between the different sources of emitters. It is more productive to focus on reducing where it is most practical to do so.

Also, we need to consider how sensible it is to set an exceptionally high target at a national level that risks not being met while, internationally, other countries continue to maximise exploitation of their resources whether it is mining in Australia, oil production in the Middle East or livestock-based agriculture in South America.

That is not to say it should be business as usual and ignore climate change. Even if we wanted to, we can’t, as changing weather patterns are becoming more and more obvious.

A global effort is required and, in that context, Irish agriculture is internationally among the most carbon-efficient that there is.

At a national level we may decide to go further and if we do, we need to consider the extent to which we are prepared to sacrifice economic development to reduce emissions.

If through our Government we decide that less cows and more data centres is the priority for Ireland, then use EU Just Transition funding to compensate farmers for whatever reduction is required.

  • Ireland not on track to achieve 51% emissions reduction by 2030.
  • Emissions reduction conflicts with lifestyle ambition.
  • Net cow numbers increase by 201,528 head from 2013 to 2023.
  • Brazil’s cattle herd increased by 23.5m from 2012 to 2022.
  • Agriculture’s high share of emissions due to grass resource.