“In the short to medium term, the assumption of no emission reductions in agriculture does have an impact on energy sectors, effectively increasing the savings to be made in heat and transport,” the ESB and independent consultants Poyry wrote in the report, “Ireland’s low carbon future – dimensions of a solution,” published on Thursday.

Agriculture, heating and transport are accounted for under the same “effort sharing” category when calculating greenhouse gas emissions, according to EU rules. Large-scale industries, such as power stations, fall under a different category.

The study takes into account the Government’s National Mitigation Plan, which balances food production and climate efforts, and considers that greenhouse gas emissions from Irish agriculture will remain stable for the foreseeable future.

It is broadly accepted that emissions in the agriculture sector are among the most difficult to mitigate

“It is broadly accepted that emissions in the agriculture sector are among the most difficult to mitigate, as technology solutions are limited and emissions therefore rise in proportion to the size of the beef and dairy herds,” the ESB report reads. “This, and the fact that emissions from agriculture are a higher proportion of the total in Ireland than anywhere else in Europe, means that meeting 2030 targets will require significant reductions in the energy sectors.”

Depending on the flexibilities allowed under EU rules currently under discussion for 2030 emission targets, this means the heating and transport sectors will have to step up efforts and reduce by 20% and 30% to meet Ireland’s expected obligations, the energy utility company recognised.

Biogas opportunity

This in itself presents an opportunity for agriculture, with biogas produced through anaerobic digestion (AD) of slurry, silage and waste identified as one of the renewable sources to improve the energy sector’s climate efficiency.

The gas can be used for heating, as fuel in vehicles, or to generate electricity, replacing fossil fuels in both transport and heat.

ESB analysis of recent studies by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and Teagasc shows that grass from unused farmland would form the vast majority of Ireland’s 4,200GWh biogas production potential, which represents 7.5% of the projected national gas demand for 2020. The report adds that “more efficient management of grazing land can free up land currently used for grazing to provide extra silage for AD,” more than doubling the national biogas potential to 9,700GWh.

More solar and wind power stations

The ESB also expects solar and wind to grow their share of electricity generation. However, the report warns that biomass will have a “limited” role to play in this area, because of proposed EU rules specifying that both the electricity and heat generated when burning energy crops must be utilised.

The heat is currently lost at Bord na Móna power stations using this technology.

“Ireland has a ‘chicken and egg’ problem, because we are currently lacking the heat networks to make use of the heat,” the ESB warned.

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