Because Ireland has missed its forestry targets in recent years, it has made the target of carbon neutrality by 2050 a big ask, chair of social and public policy at University of Galway Cathal O’Donoghue has said.

Instead of having to plant 14,500ha of trees to deliver the target, Ireland now needs to plant 20,000ha of trees, O'Donoghue told the RDS Climate-Smart Agriculture Series.

The mean land area needed to deliver carbon neutrality by 2050 is equivalent to about 18% of total land area. Currently, Ireland has 11% of its land area in forestry.

Forestry planting, having peaked in 1995, has substantially declined in recent years and planting today is only 8% of what it was in its peak.

"Delaying the delivery of 18% target by a decade has major implications for carbon neutrality by 2050," he said.

Dairy expansion

“It would take 102,000ha of forestry to mitigate the emissions from dairy expansion since 2011. However, we missed the planting target by 112,000ha in that period.

"The conclusion is if we had met the target, we could have had carbon-neutral dairy expansion in that period. That is an important lesson," he said.

Ireland's agriculture sector over-delivered on beef and milk and missed its targets on forestry.

"Since 2011, the number of livestock units increased by 386,000 and every hectare of forestry sequesters the emissions from 3.8 livestock units," he said.

Farmers should look at forestry in a multifaceted approach, O'Donoghue argues.

“Farmers can look at forestry as part of an early retirement strategy, a gradual retirement strategy or as a diversification strategy," he said.