Climate change legislation, an area of vital concern for Ireland and particularly for Irish agriculture, is very much a live issue at the present time.

The national aspects of such legislation are inextricably linked with the international aspects. At the national level, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015, published in January, is currently making its way through the Oireachtas and is expected to become law later this year. At the European level, the outlines of a Climate and Energy Package for 2030 were agreed last October by the EU Council. At the world level, the UN is preparing for a major climate conference in Paris in December, aimed at reaching international agreement on a global reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

A scientific perspective

These developments are motivated by concern about the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the global warming to which it gives rise. The principal man-made greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, arising from the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas), has now reached a level of 40% above its pre-industrial value. This is augmented by other greenhouse gases such as methane, also a carbon compound, which arises mainly from agriculture.

While there is universal agreement among climate scientists that the increasing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere tend to warm the Earth’s surface, there is no agreement as to the exact extent and timing of the warming. Looking to the past, a global warming of about 0.8°C has been observed over the past century. However, a sizable fraction of this (most of it in the case of the ocean surface temperatures) took place before 1950, when emissions were small. The 2013 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) expresses the more recent situation as follows: “It is extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic [man-made] increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Most of the concern about the increasing greenhouse gas build-up arises from climate model projections. These indicate further warming of up to 5°C, depending on the emissions scenario, by the end of the century. This is a truly alarming prospect. It has to be said, however, that the climate models have failed to predict the slowdown of the past 15 years, when very little additional surface warming has materialised despite the continued rise in the greenhouse gas levels. The climate models have also failed to predict developments such as the expansion of the Antarctic sea ice, which shows a behaviour opposite to that in the Arctic. Climate scientists have reacted in varying ways to unexpected deviations between model projections and actual events such as the above. For my own part, I have become cautious about climate model projections in recent years. I believe that international action to limit the build-up of greenhouse gases is necessary as insurance against risk. However, I do not believe we are currently facing a planetary emergency that would dictate the abandonment of vital national interests when climate legislation is being considered.

The Irish dimension

This brings me back to the Irish situation, and here I speak in the first place as an Irish citizen rather than as a climate specialist. The Irish climate bill as it stands commits the country to adhering to all EU and UN agreements, but does not prescribe any independent national targets. The European targets, in round figures, require EU-wide emissions reductions (relative to 1990 levels) of 20% by 2020, 40% by 2030 and an envisaged 80% to 95% by 2050.

As a major food-exporting country, with over 90% of our principal agricultural outputs (dairy products and beef) being sold abroad, Ireland’s agricultural emissions as a percentage of our total emissions (at 32%) are more than three times the EU average of 9%. In view of this, it is clear that any blanket application of the EU’s emissions reduction target for 2030 to Irish agriculture would cause severe difficulties, while an application of the envisaged 2050 targets would represent the death knell of the Irish meat and dairy sectors.

Fortunately for Irish agriculture, the government succeeded at last October’s EU summit in negotiating concessions for Irish agricultural emissions that recognise the importance of the agricultural sector to our economy and the importance of Irish food production to European food security. Underpinning the success of the negotiations was the fact that Irish emissions per unit of output in the dairy sector are the lowest in the EU, and in the beef sector among the lowest. Similar considerations apply in a world comparison. Given the growing international demand for these foods, any curtailment of Irish beef and dairy output would only result in the production moving elsewhere, with a consequent increase in global emissions. Other EU states, of course, also plead for concessions. For example, Poland wants to be allowed to continue burning its coal. To match the Irish case, however, Poland would have to show that curtailing its burning of coal would increase global emissions.

Should the forthcoming Irish climate legislation embody binding emissions targets for 2030 and 2050? Taking this route would cast our commitments in stone before the UN has spoken and before the EU has reacted to whatever the UN decides. It would also limit our government’s ability to ensure that the concessions obtained for Irish agriculture would not end up having to be paid for by extra burdens on other sectors of the Irish economy. As a major food exporter, we risk paying a totally disproportionate price for complying with EU emissions targets if flexibility is not maintained. There is much to be said, in our special circumstances, for not tying our hands with binding targets at this stage.

A final word wearing the climate hat: the climate model projections published by the IPCC indicate that Ireland’s climate will be less affected in decades to come than that of the Mediterranean countries. The projected patterns of climate change suggest that, whatever the extent of overall global warming, Ireland will experience relatively small temperature changes and enhanced rainfall, while our southern neighbours will suffer from hotter and drier conditions that will inhibit their agricultural capacity. Maintaining Ireland’s position as a major food producer, while ensuring that our agricultural emissions are kept as low as possible, may therefore in an increasing way serve not only our vital national interests, but also those of Europe and the wider world.

Ray Bates is adjunct professor of meteorology at UCD. He was formerly Professor of Meteorology at the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen and a senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. He has served as an Expert Reviewer of the recent and previous IPCC reports. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy.