Discussions are ongoing within DAERA over how to set a specific target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from NI farming.

Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots has said his staff are “leading engagement” with other government departments as part of an initial step in setting targets for each sector of the NI economy.

“Sectoral plans will form part of the overall climate action plan for NI. A wide range of stakeholder engagement activities shall be undertaken at the appropriate times,” Minister Poots said.

A bitter debate over an emissions target for the agriculture sector in the Republic of Ireland concluded last week. After months of discussion, the government in Dublin agreed that farming must cut emissions by at least 25% by 2030.

The saga exposed various flaws in the current system used for accounting greenhouse gases.

For example, carbon removed from the atmosphere by soils, trees and hedgerows on farms does not offset emissions from the agriculture sector.

Also, the use of renewable technologies on farms does not help lower the greenhouse gases attributed to agriculture.

Another key issue is the measure used for comparing different greenhouse gases, known as carbon dioxide equivalent. Scientists accept the system does not accurately reflect the short lifespan of methane, the greenhouse gas which is emitted by ruminant livestock.

However, the methane issue was acknowledged by policymakers in NI before the climate change act completed its passage through Stormont in March 2022.

As part of the legally binding requirement to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, methane emissions in NI are not required to fall by more than 46%.

Sectoral plans

The new climate act requires emissions reduction plans to be developed for each part of the NI economy. The law states that the plan for agriculture must include “fully funded carbon audits of farms”.

Policies for achieving emission reduction targets need to be included in the plans, although all proposals are subject to a 16-week public consultation process.

“The climate action plan is required to be laid before the Assembly before the end of December 2023 and the sectoral plan for agriculture will be taken forward in line with the overall approach to […] producing the climate action plan,” Minister Poots said.