To get on course to reach net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, NI needs to start reducing livestock numbers now, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) has said.

In a document published last Thursday, the CCC, which provides independent advice to UK and devolved governments, suggested that by 2030, dairy cattle numbers need to fall by 22%, with beef cattle numbers down 17%. Sheep numbers should fall 18%.

Longer term, to help meet a net zero target by 2050, livestock numbers in NI may need to be halved.

The initial reduction in livestock by 2030 would free up farmland to be “turned towards greater carbon sequestration”, including growing trees.

A 22% reduction in dairy cattle (cows and followers) is close to 100,000 head, and if cow numbers dropped by this percentage, it would take numbers to levels last seen in the 1970s (244,000 head).

In beef, a 17% reduction is nearly 200,000 head, and if cows numbers dropped by this same percentage, it would leave sucklers at around 203,000, a total last seen in the 1960s. An 18% cut in ewe numbers when compared to 2020 levels leaves NI with 775,000 ewes, similar to totals seen in the 1980s.

Original advice

The original advice from the CCC came in its 2020 “balanced pathway” which set out how NI would have to achieve an 83% reduction in GHG emissions by 2050 as part of the UK achieving net zero by that date. “This pathway is already very ambitious, with most sectors decarbonising almost completely,” notes the CCC advice.

The 83% figure allowed for the fact agriculture is more important to NI than in other parts of the UK, and recognised that methane (which is a potent GHG) from livestock is difficult to reduce without cutting numbers.

In its 2020 advice, the CCC also pointed out that carbon capture and storage technology would be required to get NI to net zero, but logistically it would be best placed elsewhere. Siting it in NI would cost an estimated £900m per year in 2050.

Despite those arguments being put to MLAs at Stormont, local politicians decided to press ahead with a net zero target within the 2022 NI Climate Change Act. In its latest publication the CCC describes this target as “extremely stretching” and point out it goes “significantly beyond” its advice.

Questions marks over separate methane target

In the final throes of the legislative process for a NI Climate Act, MLAs from the main parties (except Alliance) agreed a DAERA amendment put forward by Minister Poots which means methane by 2050 will not need to be more than 46% lower than the 1990 baseline.

The amendment, as well as recognising that methane from ruminants is difficult to reduce without cutting numbers, also reflects the fact methane is a short-lived gas.

Where livestock numbers are stable, methane released today simply replaces methane emitted 12 years’ ago.

Even a small reduction in methane going forward will contribute to global cooling.


At the time, it had been thought that this methane amendment might broadly bring the legislation back into line with the CCC’s balanced pathway (83% cut in emissions by 2050), with other GHG’s apart from methane expected to get to net zero.

In the ensuing debate at Stormont, John Blair from the Alliance Party suggested that the allowance for methane had “seriously weakened” the bill, while Rosemary Barton from the UUP said it had “realigned” NI with the CCC’s balanced pathway.

Responding to TUV leader Jim Allister, Minister Poots suggested that with the 46% methane target in place, NI might have to implement less cuts to livestock than under the CCC’s balanced pathway approach.

All of these statements appear to be wrong. The CCC analysis is based on an overall NI net zero target, and to allow for some residual methane, other GHGs need to get into net negative territory.

Reading the CCC document, it is virtually an impossible ask, with “radical options” explored and the possibility that the 46% methane target “may need to be revised”.

Going further to reach net zero

The original balanced pathway set out by the CCC includes some “very ambitious” actions to achieve an 83% cut in emissions by 2050.

These include a complete switch to electric cars and vans by 2032, a reduction of livestock numbers by nearly one-third by 2050, and a significant increase in peatland restoration and afforestation.

Despite that, MLAs opted for a net zero target in NI. In its latest advice, the CCC set out how this might be achieved.

Its “stretch ambition” pathway, suggests an approximate 18% cut in cattle and sheep numbers by 2030, which frees up land for afforestation. Over the last 10 years, annual afforestation rates in NI have averaged 226ha. This needs to increase to 1,000ha by 2024, and 3,100ha per year by 2035 and ultimately to 4,100ha by 2039 and beyond. If that were achieved, over 85,000ha of agricultural land will be planted in trees by 2050.

In addition, the CCC advice refers to a further 3,500ha per year planted with energy crops and short-rotation forestry by 2030, double the level of planting in the “balanced pathway”.

Engineered removals

The new pathway also includes engineered removals, where carbon is captured when energy crops are burned or when biomethane from anaerobic digestion is utilised in gas power stations. This carbon would then be put into long-term storage (eg underground in a depleted oil or gas field in the North Sea). “These options would require significant investment and infrastructure development,” notes the CCC advice.

But even this would not get NI to net zero (93% reduction in emissions by 2050), so the CCC has set out some “speculative options”.

The first is direct air carbon capture technologies. It is “expected to have high costs and may be difficult to deliver at scale in time,” states the CCC, while also pointing out that it would be more cost-effective close to a storage site in Britain.

The other main option requires livestock to be approximately halved by 2050, alongside widespread technology and efficiency improvements within the sector. But if carbon capture technology is not in place within the next few years, it may be necessary to implement “even faster agriculture emissions reductions”, notes the CCC.

Achieving net zero in NI will be “extremely challenging and will be unachievable without immediate policy actions”, concludes their advice.

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