The Irish Times reported on 19 December that the cabinet was considering a draft plan to cut car numbers by 20% and cattle numbers by 10%, both targets to be realised by 2030, just seven years away.

The paper quoted Taoiseach Leo Varadkar as expressing confidence that the plan will be agreed, adding: “I’m determined that we should be the generation of politicians that passes on the planet in a better condition than we inherited it.”

Since cars do not create greenhouse gas emissions unless in motion, a target for car numbers is a curious choice. Volumes of petrol and diesel will certainly need to fall, since they are a principal source of emissions.

But car numbers, shifting steadily to electric traction under plans already announced, could safely be allowed to rise if the electricity generation system continues the switch to renewables. This latter switch is a centrepiece of the climate action plan.

Who cares if the number of cars stays the same, or even rises, if they are mostly powered by carbon-free electricity?

Lack of confidence

The sudden adoption of this new target to reduce car numbers, never before mentioned, betrays a lack of confidence by the Government in its own stated strategy.

Even if such a target were to be adopted, there must be serious doubts about its feasibility.

There are just under 2.5m private cars registered in the state. This would fall, in just seven years, to 2m if the target is to be taken seriously. Even in a bad year, around 100,000 cars are imported, new and used, and a near-total suspension of imports would therefore be required. At the end of which, the national car fleet would consist mainly of ageing bangers.

Since fuel efficiency is embodied in newer modern cars, it is even possible that an import shutdown and the resulting drastic increase in the average age of the fleet would worsen fuel efficiency enough to offset any fall in emissions. This does not look like a proposal that has been thought through.

The 10% cut in cattle numbers is another figure out of the blue, with no clarity about implementation and no breakdown between beef and dairy.

Next day, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue backtracked smartly.

It is clear from the Teagasc figures that a reduction in dairy numbers would have a more damaging economic impact than would a contraction of the beef herd.

Farmers will want to know, if herd reduction is the chosen path, what policy architecture will be deployed to bring it about. A return of milk quotas, a reduction in beef supports, or will it be aspirational?

The Taoiseach’s ambition to bequeath a planet in better shape to the next generation is very noble, of course, but it skirts the awkward reality that Ireland is not a planet.

No matter what way you measure emissions, Ireland accounts for something like a quarter of 1%. This is not an argument for doing nothing, since the scientific verdict is in, and has been for almost 30 years.

The 200 countries in the world need to agree on climate action and European Union members are obligated to adopt quantitative targets for emissions reduction.

European countries have done more than others and it is unimaginable that Ireland would shirk its responsibilities. Unfortunately, the EU has chosen targets based around production-based measurement of emissions, which disadvantage exporters.

A consumption-based measurement, with carbon taxes and charges, would have been a superior policy.

Since reductions in agricultural output in Ireland could be accompanied by compensating increases somewhere else, possibly somewhere that generates greater per-unit emissions, it is not assured that sacrifices here would deliver actual reductions in overall European and worldwide emissions.

There is a broader concern about the Government’s climate policy

There has still been no official analysis, to my knowledge, which addresses this question.

The EU is developing a new policy approach, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), which would impose tariffs on imports from outside Europe to level the playing field against countries which have inadequate charges on emissions from their export sectors.

The same issue arises inside the EU’s single market: production may not be equally carbon-efficient everywhere.

There is a broader concern about the Government’s climate policy. Accepting the constraints of EU targets, the objective should be the attainment of carbon reduction at minimum cost.

Instead, a range of disconnected targets across sectors is being developed without proper attention to costs.

An example is the push for high levels of home insulation via retrofit, which some experts feel will purchase modest greenhouse gas reductions at too high a price.


More generally, there has been too little acknowledgement of the cost implications for electricity of the major investments required in transmission and distribution infrastructure. Since electricity is a cost recovery business, these will ultimately add to prices, already higher than elsewhere.