The publication last week of the Climate Change Advisory Council’s recommended five-yearly economy-wide carbon budgets at one level contained little that was new.
Based on the Programme for Government and the draft Climate Bill, the overall reduction in emissions by 2030 had to be set at 51%.
One might be forgiven for thinking that all the council did was to backload the cut to the second five-year period.
And you might also be forgiven for thinking that the council had little choice in this regard as we’re already two months from the end of the first year of the first budget and we know there will be lags before measures are adopted by Government to back up the target cuts and for the sectors to respond to these measures.
If all that was expected of the council was to slice the 51% cut into two sensible halves, this could have been achieved at a short single meeting.
The bill sets out several matters that the council was required to take into account in proposing the budgets
The carbon budgets are, of course, far more than an exercise in basic arithmetic. The council does not have the remit to propose sectoral targets. That highly political task rightly falls to Government.
The bill sets out several matters that the council was required to take into account in proposing the budgets. But at the same time, irrespective of its deliberations on these matters, it couldn’t deviate from the binding overall 51% target.
So the really important aspect of the council’s communication on the carbon budgets is the advice that’s proffered that may influence the setting of those sectoral targets.
As far as the agricultural sector is concerned, the draft bill commits the minister and the Government, in addition to the council, to have regard to “... the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane”.
There is no question in my mind that the initial reason, at any rate, for the mention of biogenic methane in this way is the scientific fact that biogenic methane has a profoundly different impact on global warming to other greenhouse gases (GHGs).
I also regret, of course, that as an ex-officio member, I was unable to persuade the current council to retain that commitment
We have known for several years that not all GHGs have the same impact on global warming. Indeed this characteristic was stressed several times by the first climate council, which went as far as to advise Government that biogenic methane should be treated separately with its own target.
It’s very regrettable that this advice is absent from the current council’s advice.
I also regret, of course, that as an ex-officio member, I was unable to persuade the current council to retain that commitment.
If the production of methane can be stabilised by, for instance, stabilising the national cattle herd, as AgClimatise and Vision2030 have proposed and which has been accepted by the farming organisations, then biogenic methane produced by Irish agriculture can be neutralised as a source of global warming.
No other GHG, such as carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide, can have this impact
That, in my book, would be a profoundly positive outcome. And no one could be under any illusion as to how difficult a challenge stabilisation would be, especially in the dairy sector.
No other GHG, such as carbon dioxide or nitrous oxide, can have this impact. Stabilisation in the production of these gases is not sufficient to deliver a neutral impact on global warming. They have got to be reduced.
Yet the council has recommended to the minister the need “for a strong, rapid and sustained reduction in methane emissions”.
This advice is code for saying that while methane should not be cut by 51%, it certainly needs to be cut by considerably more than the 10% which was advocated by both AgClimatise and Vision2030.
Why the U-turn which, if followed through, would present an existential threat to Irish livestock production?
Some might welcome that, but I don’t think many sensibly minded and commercially oriented people concerned about exports and jobs would. It has to be remembered that no other industry which has to decarbonise faces such a threat.
Alternatives to fossil fuel energy are available. However, livestock, as economists put it, are essential inputs in the production of livestock products. This is another critically important distinctive characteristic of biogenic methane.
There are at least two reasons why the council might consider a need for a significant cut in methane
This dimension is not shared by fossil-fuel-based methane. And despite assertions to the contrary, there are no feasible mainstream alternatives to livestock production for the foreseeable future.
There are at least two reasons why the council might consider a need for a significant cut in methane.
One is that for any given target overall cut for the sector, if methane isn’t cut by a level close to the contribution required from fertiliser use and manure management and land use (including forestry), then the burden of delivering the given overall sector cut will fall disproportionately on these two factors.
In these circumstances it’s highly unlikely that these two factors could deliver the sectoral target cut. This is an argument for treating methane separately.
But a more subtle reason for the U-turn may be that the issue is not biogenic methane’s contribution to global warming, which would be neutral if the national herd was stabilised, but its potential contribution to global cooling.
To be fair, the council’s technical report doesn’t shirk from this implication. In other words, by cutting methane it bides time for the non-agricultural sectors to reduce their emissions or to develop the technologies for carbon capture.
In effect, agriculture is to be sacrificed to allow the rest of the economy time to adjust. Just imagine the compensatory implications alone if this course of action were to be seriously contemplated.
I want to make it very clear that I’m not interested in vacuous special pleading for the sector
Incidentally, when I spoke a while ago to a meeting of the IFA national council, there was one contributor who clearly saw the potential double-edged aspect of biogenic methane.
I want to make it very clear that I’m not interested in vacuous special pleading for the sector. Agriculture can and should make a fair contribution to reducing its global warming impact by greatly reducing, for instance, its use of chemical nitrogen.
This will be immensely challenging and costly in terms of output and incomes and will require a huge push on the advisory and research fronts. As will retarding growth by stabilising the national herd. Likewise, the changes required in land use will be challenging.
But demanding that biogenic methane be substantially reduced is the equivalent of kicking a man when he’s down. Farmers need to be given a reasonable opportunity to get things right. Hopefully in the setting of the sectoral targets they will be.
Professor Gerry Boyle is the former Director of Teagasc and former member of the Climate Change Advisory Council.