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Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine debate -
Wednesday, 20 Jul 2022

Calculation of Methane Emissions: Discussion

I remind members, witnesses and persons in the Public Gallery to turn off their mobile telephones. The purpose of today's meeting is to examine two topics. The first session is on calculation of methane emissions and the second will be on sectoral emission ceilings. The committee will hear from a number of expert witnesses and officials from respective Departments.

On 28 February, the legal requirement for mask-wearing in all settings was removed. However, it is still good practice to continue to use face coverings, particularly in crowded areas. The service encourages all members of the parliamentary community to wear face masks when moving around the campus or in close proximity to others.

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Witnesses who are giving evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as witnesses giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Privilege against defamation does not apply to the publication by witnesses, outside the proceedings held by the committee, of any matter arising from the proceedings.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Parliamentary privilege is considered to apply to utterances of members participating online in this committee meeting when their participation is from within the parliamentary precincts. There can be no assurance in relation to participation online from outside the parliamentary precincts and members should be mindful of this when they are contributing.

Today's first session until 1 p.m. is on calculation of methane emissions. The committee will hear from representatives from the Carbon Removals Action Group and Professor Myles Allen, Oxford University, and Dr. Frank Mitloehner from the department of animal science, University of California, Davis, who is joining remotely. I will now call the witnesses to make their opening statements. To leave ample time for questions, I would like them to confine their opening statements to five minutes if that is okay.

Mr. John Hourigan

I thank the committee for inviting us here today. I am a farmer from rural County Limerick and I am founder member and chairman of the Carbon Removals Action Group, CRAG, which was set up in 2019 to help farmers realise the value from their carbon removals, mainly in forestry. This matter is not yet settled by any means.

However, today is focused on methane and while there are several concerns we hope to discuss, and there are goals shared by everyone in this room, we all know that climate change is real and happening as we speak and steps must be taken to reduce everybody's contribution.

The specifics of what should be included, the criteria for legally binding targets, international commitments that have been made, how it should be included and calculated, which sectoral group they should sit in and how all these decisions are reached and communicated to the farming community and the wider public are points of serious concern.

I take this opportunity to introduce my colleagues who are here with me today. Professor Myles Allen needs no introduction. He is a world-renowned climate scientist and is currently professor of geosystem science at the University of Oxford and director of the Oxford Net Zero initiative. He was the co-ordinating lead author on the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, special report on the 1.5 Co reduction and has been involved with the IPCC's third, fourth and fifth assessments. Ms Nadaline Webster is a co-founder of CRAG and a strategic and creative consultant in the legal technology sector working primarily with early-stage start-ups through to equity events. She lives with her partner, who is an organic farmer in County Limerick.

There are six core points to the discussion on the calculation of methane that urgently need consideration and discussion, which I will address them briefly. The relevant sources are listed in the references at the end of this document. One of my main concerns has been the ongoing reputational crisis in Irish agriculture, which is due in no small part to repeated assertions that methane emissions from cattle are largely responsible for global warming. It can be argued that once calculated correctly, methane emissions from cattle are not contributing to increased global temperatures. To quote Professor Allen on the same matter: "Achieving climate neutrality in terms of metric-equivalent emissions could mean eliminating practices, such as ruminant agriculture, that are not actually causing global warming."

The basis for the separate treatment of methane, outside of the carbon cycle of which it is naturally a part, is provided in the 2006 IPCC guidelines. It states:

CO2 emissions from livestock are not estimated because annual net CO2 emissions are assumed to be zero - the CO2 photosynthesised by plants is returned to the atmosphere as respired CO2. A portion of the C is returned as CH4 and for this reason CH4 requires separate consideration.

It should have stated that the CH4 converts back into CO2, which completes the cycle. This is all absolutely correct but must be applied correctly, which is not the case in Ireland currently. "Separate consideration" should not be taken to mean removing it from the carbon cycle and treating it as a CO2 equivalent.

CO2 emissions from livestock are net zero in absolute terms because of the carbon cycle. Almost all of the CO2 taken in by the animal through the forage it consumes is returned very quickly through respiration from the animal and through the meat and milk consumed by humans. Approximately 50% is respired immediately through respiration. In Ireland, a small amount, which could be 5%, is locked into the soil. Approximately 3% is returned through methane. All the rest goes into the meat and milk. Because of this cycle, all the billions of tonnes of methane produced over millions of years by billions of ruminants has been recycled. It is all gone because there is a system to take care of it.

They are also right in saying that methane requires separate consideration. All scientists who have published on this issue since 2015 agree that biogenic methane requires separate consideration. The problem is that the Government insists on treating biogenic methane as CO2 equivalent, viewing it in the same way as methane from mining, which is a one-way ticket. This gives rise to a situation where 65% of agriculture's carbon footprint is supposedly made up of biogenic methane, which is not causing any further global warming as long as livestock emissions decline by 3% per decade. Professor Allen will elaborate on this. The Paris Agreement set a temperature goal, not a CO2 equivalent goal. A core part of that is a stable national herd. Contrary to a lot of people's understanding, over the past 40 years, the Irish herd has been largely stable. It has fluctuated but all through the 1990s, total cattle numbers were in or around 7 million peaking in 1998 at 7.67 million and it now stands at 6.9 million. This is a drop of 10% from peak of 25 years ago. It is worth noting that in the same timeframe, the number of vehicles on our roads increased by 64% and air travel increased by 350%.

The other sector that is very important involves the ledgers relating to these different things. Land use, land use change and forestry, LULUCF, contains all the removals from forestry and grassland, which are huge. In the agriculture sector, the emissions are put in. We are being hard done by in how emissions generated through anaerobic digestion are categorised.

I will finish with a plea to Ireland to count the methane as separate, to have a separate target for biogenic methane and to listen to the likes of Professor Allen and Dr. Mitloehner, who make the very valid points that we can get to neutral in terms of the impact of global warming by taking on board a correct method of measurement.

Professor Myles Allen

Does the Chairman wish me to speak before Dr. Mitloehner?

Perhaps Professor Allen can come in after the questions.

Professor Myles Allen

That would be great.

I now invite Dr. Mitloehner to make his opening statement.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner

I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for inviting me to discuss methane emissions from livestock. As a professor of animal science and air quality specialist in the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis, much of my work revolves around studying the emissions of livestock to determine their contribution to air pollution and climate change. My position at the university puts me in the leading agricultural state in the US, where half of all US produce and 20% of all dairy products are being grown. Here in California, we have a dairy herd very similar in size to that of Ireland. I research and speak throughout the world on animal agriculture discussing how livestock produces greenhouse gas emissions and how we can mitigate them.

We clearly see that demand for animal-sourced foods is rising and the bulk of livestock emissions are coming from less efficient regions of the world. Reducing herd sizes is not a practical solution, especially in Ireland, where farmers are very efficient producers. If they scaled back their herds, production would likely move to another region so that global demand could be met. Given how proficient Irish farmers are, those picking up the slack, so to speak, may well produce less sustainably than Irish farmers. This is called leakage, a phenomenon that could well lead to a spike - not a reduction - in greenhouse gas emissions. Make no mistake: animal agriculture has indeed played a role in advancing atmospheric warming - not to the extent that other sectors such as transportation and energy have - but a role nonetheless. Furthermore, it can help to limit warming further. Granted, it will require a departure from business as usual and require farmers to embrace innovation and the adoption of new technologies but if you think about it, those things have never been obstacles to those looking to improve their operations.

Across the world, countries are looking for solutions to reduce emissions from their livestock. Here in California, the state is working with farmers to reduce methane emissions in dairies and they are seeing promising results through collaboration. Farmers can and should be part of Ireland's approach to reducing greenhouse gases. I say this as someone who has dedicated his career to helping to mitigate emissions in the livestock sector and as someone who holds our farmers in the highest regard. The sector has room to improve and could feasibly reduce emissions by 20% to 30% by employing emerging technologies. In fact, we are doing just that in California. Yes, Ireland can reach its goals, keep its farms viable and ensure food systems can meet demand, which will only increase as the global population keeps growing.

The old saying that you cannot manage what you cannot measure applies as well to methane emitted by cattle herds. Ireland is distinctive in that its cattle are primarily raised on pasture, which has significant carbon sequestration capacity. What is surprising is it is not well known how much carbon is being sequestered by Irish farms. That needs to be better understood as we discuss carbon accounting and set emissions targets. Solutions are available right now that can reduce methane emissions from cattle. These solutions will likely need to be tweaked to fit the Irish way of raising livestock but that is not a formidable challenge. Feed additives are promising with significant potential to reduce enteric methane emissions in livestock. Bovaer, also known as 3NOP, has recently been recognised by the European Union as a proven methane-reduction feed additive with the potential of reducing by more than 30% and other additives are on the way.

California has reduced the emissions of more than 2 million Mt CO2 eq annually using anaerobic digesters. We have reduced 30% of the dairy sector's methane over the past five years. While I understand anaerobic digesters are a major departure from the Irish way of dairy production, the critical point is that we are formulating real, workable solutions to a problem many believe can only be tackled through draconian herd size reductions and dietary changes.

The global population is on trend to triple within our lifetimes, representing an enormous food security and natural resource challenge. Even now, we are seeing food security issues reveal themselves as parts of Europe are at war. Meeting these challenges will require the world to produce plant- and animal-sourced food and produce them more efficiently, using both high quality and marginal agricultural lands. However, first, we need to examine the facts and not engage in hyperbole.

Ireland already plays a large role in producing food for the world. More than 90% of its beef and dairy products are used in homes outside its borders. Irish farmers produce animal-sourced foods more efficiently than many other regions, while always striving to improve as they provide nutritious food to those who need it at home and abroad. Given the nation’s role in global food supply, we would do well to allow it to be part of a global solution to limiting climate change.

I thank the Chair and I am happy to entertain any questions.

I thank Dr. Mitloehner. Both opening statements have set the tone for what we want to discuss today. There are two aspects of what we want to focus on. One is the calculation of methane emissions and the other, which Dr. Mitloehner focused on in his opening statement, is the reduction of emissions. I met him a couple weeks ago in County Tipperary and he said there are the same number of cows in California as we have in Ireland. Over the past five years, they have managed to reduce their emissions by 30%. I know his side of farming there is different to ours, but he spoke at that day on what he has done with feed additives and the way he incorporated them to have an impact on methane emissions. Anaerobic digesters are playing a huge role. One thing I took out of the meeting we had with Dr. Mitloehner at the Horse and Jockey Hotel is that the organic production of the animal was worth 50% of our milk output. What was being produced out a cow’s rear end was worth 50% of what milk she was producing. That shows the value of slurry. In the modern world, if it can be used for energy generation, it has a huge economic value. We are definitely behind the curve both with not only America, but the rest of Europe in embracing that technology for the benefit of the entire economy.

I now open the meeting up to members for questions for both sets of witnesses. Professor Allen said he will come in to contribute when the questions come in. I call Deputy Fitzmaurice.

I thank the witnesses for coming in. Mr. Hourigan said that basically a cow eats ten or 11 tonnes of grass and that a certain amount of that has carbon in it and a certain amount goes out through the milk. He talked about the methane and stabilising numbers. Does Professor Allen agree with Mr. Hourigan’s analysis? I saw something in the media yesterday and I note Professor Allen talked about 3% over ten years. What are his solutions? Can he share some of his in-depth knowledge? Was he on the panel on climate science and what was he doing?

Professor Myles Allen

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Climate change. Could he explain that?

Ireland is basically a grass-based country. As was outlined by the professor, this could move to other places that might not be as good at doing it. What would his solutions for Ireland be? In the line of this word that is going around at the moment in relation to a "cull" of the national herd - it is causing major problems in Holland at the moment - what would his solutions be in basically all the science that he looked at?

I have a question for Professor Mitloehner. My understanding is that in California, or perhaps some other state in America, they are using a seaweed that has been adapted and the government has given the go-ahead, which has reduced methane. Going back 100, 80, 50 or 30 years, what were the world's herds like? How were they compared to now? Are they stable or are they now less than they were before? What is it like in that way?

We have seen spikes at times when gas wells and that were not being kept. Are there spikes associated with other things in methane where the farmer gets the bashing the whole time? What would the percentage of that be? Dumps are another example. I worked in a dump myself. They were redoing it down in Clare and there is a flame burning there all the time because of where there was dumping done for years. What are the percentages? We keep looking at one road of where the agriculture is, but no one seems to be looking at where those dumps are put or where those gas wells are. In some countries, things were not done too well. Could both our witnesses give us a briefing on the likes of that?

Professor Myles Allen

I thank the committee for bringing me in. I prepared a short briefing note on technical matters, which I hope was made available to members. I am happy to share it with anybody who does not have a copy of it.

I am here to brief on, specifically, the matter of measurement of methane and its impact on global temperature. On the broader policy questions the Deputy raised, given my citizenship and accent, I do not think I am qualified to speak to them.

However, what I can do as a climate physicist sitting outside of this discussion is tell him a little about how I feel there is a lot of unnecessary animosity in this. He mentioned the 3% per decade. If you are reducing methane emissions from whatever source by 3% per decade - which as Dr. Mitloehner mentioned, is entirely achievable and, in fact, you can probably do much better than that – those methane emissions then are not contributing to any additional global warming. I choose my words carefully here because they will have, in building up the herd back in the day, contributed to global warming. It is important to acknowledge that in any discussion about sectoral responsibilities. When the Deputy is talking about agriculture’s responsibilities, by all means he can talk about what Irish agriculture may have contributed to global warming in the past.

However, all I advocate – this is just speaking as a scientist – is can we please measure the impact of everything we discuss on global temperature? It is a source of some embarrassment that you have a method of characterising environmental impact of greenhouse gases that does not actually reflect the impact on global temperature. The Deputy is looking me like, “So what have you been doing for the past 30 years?” He has a point. He should be looking at me like that. To be fair, we know how to do it right. There are relatively simple ways of calculating the impact of emissions on global temperature and they were all well documented in the recent IPCC report. It is universally agreed among the scientists who work in this sector that that is what we should document. Unfortunately, in our formal reporting requirements that we place on farmers and countries reporting to United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, we are still using this old and, frankly, not fit for purpose metric of CO2 equivalent emissions, which does not reflect the impact of methane emissions on global temperature.

If there is one thing I ask members to take away from this meeting, it is to let Ireland be a policy pioneer in reporting the warming impact of policy on global temperatures. In the briefing note I provided, I included a graph to illustrate the difference it makes. The blue line on that graph represents the actual impact. One can calculate the impact of Ireland's methane emissions on global temperature under a scenario in which, hypothetically, there is a reduction of 51% by 2030 and net zero in 2050. I am not suggesting that is a policy scenario; it is just to illustrate the way these gases behave. The dotted line represents the CO2 equivalent metric, which is the sort of standard carbon footprint that we report and everybody uses, in the context of what those methane emissions are doing. Members will notice that it underestimates the warming caused by Ireland's methane emissions to date. It is not saying not to worry about methane at all but, as soon as methane emissions start to decline, the actual impact on global temperatures follows them down, whereas the carbon footprint calculation suggests that their warming impact carries on up. It even gets the sign wrong when one moves into a situation of declining methane emissions. We are using a tool that does not reflect the impact of emissions on global temperature. I am not suggesting that Ireland abandon that tool. It is embedded in international policy, and I am sure Ireland will carry on using it because everybody else uses it too. What I am suggesting, however, is that reporting requirements be added in. That could even be at farm level. Mr. Hourigan could work out with a pocket calculator his impact on global temperatures. Those reporting requirements would assist in targeting policies to maximise the reduction in global temperature. That is what we are trying to do. We are trying to stop global warming. That is what we should focus policy on.

My response to the Deputy's many questions is to document and report the impact of policies and emissions on global temperatures. That would be a very easy innovation to do and it is something the Climate Change Advisory Council can already do. If that was introduced into the conversation, it would do a great deal to defuse the tension between the farming community and the Government on this issue.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner

I agree with everything Professor Allen just said. I recommend using a matrix that is fit for purpose. It is critical to describe the impact of a sector on warming because this is what it is all about. It is not about carbon equivalent emissions; it is about the impact the sector has on warming. We want to stop additional warming and, therefore, need to find tools to get us there.

The Deputy asked what herd sizes have done in the United States over time. There have been significant changes. Back in the 1950s, we had our peak in beef and dairy populations, with 25 million dairy cows in the country. Today, we have 9 million dairy cows. With that much smaller herd, we are producing 60% more milk. The carbon footprint of the dairy sector has shrunk by two thirds in that period. A drastic improvement in performance has led to a drastic reduction in the warming impact of the sector. I stated earlier that the most recent changes in California have been amazing. In the past five years, the California dairy sector has reduced its methane emissions by 30%. That is all metered and validated by the various agencies in the state. It was made possible by the state incentivising rather than penalising methane reductions, working hand in hand with farmers and generating a market approach to financially incentivise reductions in methane. That is a strategy that works. I have compared it with strategies throughout the world - in New Zealand, European countries and so on - but I have yet to find a strategy that has worked better than the one here in California.

The Deputy asked whether there have been spikes in methane emissions. Up until 2006, there was a plateauing of methane in the United States. This went on for some time. In 2006, there was a sudden uptick in methane. We wondered how that could be. We looked at all the different sources of methane, including livestock, rice paddies, fossil fuel and everything else. The cattle herd had not changed. The livestock sector did not suddenly emit far more than it did prior to 2006. We found that it was the onset of fracking - the extraction of fossil fuels using the fracking method - in 2006 that was largely responsible for the spikes that followed.

I also asked about the use of seaweed in one of the states.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner

Apologies. We have done research on approximately 30 different feed additives, of which red seaweed is one. It is not a seaweed that is found on the Irish coast; it is a subtropical seaweed from the Australian coast. It contains an active ingredient named bromoform that strongly reduces enteric methane. It is not the only feed additive that works along those lines of disrupting the enzymatic production of methane in the rumen but it is one of them. We are working diligently to find out what kind of active ingredients in what kind of feed additive can have similar effects. It has been shown in dozens of publications that seaweed or 3-NOP can reduce enteric methane, which is the main methane source of Irish agriculture, by between 20% and more than 60%. If one goes too high with the reductions, that might affect performance. However, sizeable reductions can be attained. The question is how to introduce a feed additive into a herd that is largely pasture-based. Ireland has many first-class scientists and that should not be too difficult a question for them to investigate.

The cattle all drink water.

I thank our guests for attending. I particularly welcome Mr. Hourigan, who is from Limerick. It is a wonder that either of us made it to the meeting, given the celebrations in recent days with Limerick winning the All-Ireland hurling final. It is good to be here and to have our guests here.

I am hearing divergence between the three guests who have contributed on the issue of the natural process, methane cycle or carbon cycle. Mr. Hourigan stated that it is inherently net zero because methane that is produced by ruminant livestock ultimately gets broken down into CO2 in the atmosphere and that CO2 is then absorbed by the grass growth which is then consumed by the livestock. I do not think that is what Professor Allen is saying. I am interested to hear his comments on this. As I understand what he said, there has been an effect of increased methane in the building up of the herd in recent decades in the context of global warming. There seems to be divergence in that regard, and that methane matters. We know methane is the same molecule whether it comes from an animal, is leaked from a fracking well in the United States or whatever. It is the same molecule, but the argument is that the methane that comes from agriculture is part of this natural process and, ultimately, should be accounted for separately.

Mr. John Hourigan

There is no divergence. CO2 taken in by an animal and released again through the natural cycle is net zero in absolute terms. When you start looking at the methane in its global warming impact and multiplying by 28 to reflect what is happening, that is where Professor Allen comes in. However, on very basic science, it is net zero. I contend that methane from ruminants is very different to that from mining, fracking or whatever. Methane from fracking comes up out of the ground, it has been there for a million years, it converts back to CO2 after 12 years and stays in the atmosphere forever. Before a cow releases a tonne of methane, she has to take in 2.7 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere. It goes from the atmosphere into the cow, it is released again and, after 12 years, it goes back to where it came from. It is a cycle. It is quite unlike methane from mining. Do the maths on it for a 100-year period. We have 34.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emitted every year through fossil fuels. Over 100 years, that is 3 trillion tonnes. Mining produces roughly the same amount of methane as animals, which is approximately 100 million tonnes per annum. It goes up into the atmosphere and after 12 years it converts back to CO2. One hundred million tonnes of methane converts to 2.7 billion tonnes of CO2 when you multiply by 2.7. Over 100 years, mining produces 27 billion tonnes of extra CO2 into the atmosphere. For the global herd of cows to produce 100 million tonnes of methane, they would first have to take out 270 million tonnes of CO2. After 12 years, that returns to the atmosphere. After 100 years, leaving aside the global warming potential, GWP, effect of both for now, the methane for those cattle has not added a single tonne of CO2 or methane to the atmosphere. It is part of a cycle. After 100 years, methane from mining has really added to what is left in the atmosphere. The difference could not be more stark.

Professor Myles Allen

I will speak directly on that point. Our long-term legacy on geological timescales is undoubtedly our fossil CO2. In that respect, biological cycles are not effecting the release of fossil CO2 whereas methane from mining is. On multi-century timescales, it is the fossil carbon that matters. That is why I said in my little briefing note that I know that we are talking about methane. I get that we have to stay on topic this afternoon, but I know that the committee is going on to talk about sectoral budgets so please do not forget about fossil CO2 because that is what our great grandchildren will actually care about.

We are focused on methane here. There is no question that increasing a herd size has a warming impact on the planet because it increases the amount of methane in the atmosphere. It stirs up the methane cycle. It may be a natural cycle but if you increase the number of cattle, you are revving it up and increasing the amount of methane in the air at any one time. All I have been arguing for is that it should be reflected in the accounting and that the impact on these different gases on global temperatures.

On Dr. Mitloehner's point on fracking, it is important to get this right and dangerous to get wrong. In my briefing note, I quoted a sentence from the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which states, "Expressing methane emissions as CO2-equivalent using GWP100 (the standard method) overstates the effect of constant methane emissions on global temperature by a factor of 3 to 4, while understating the effect of any new methane emission source by a factor of 4 to 5". This means that those frackers got away with the impact of their activities on global temperature in the past 20 years being understated by our conventional accounting systems by a factor of four to five, while at the same time we have an accounting system that overstates the impact of a herd that has been around for more than 20 years by a factor of three to four. We do not need to have this problem. We can do this right. We do not need to misrepresent the impact of these gases on global temperature. All I am calling for is that we get it right. Methane is important. That is why it is so important to get its impact on global temperature right in formulating policy.

I thank Professor Allen. I understand that. He has clarified things for me. It is really important that we do not walk out of this room and say that methane from ruminant livestock is effectively benign because it is part of this natural cycle. The inference from that would be that we could increase numbers by ten or 100 times and it would not matter. Professor Allen is not saying that but the inference could be that it is part of this natural cycle. He is very clearly saying that methane does have an impact and he was very clear about the increase in herd size. He said it has had a warming impact.

Professor Myles Allen

Past increases in herd size have had a warming impact and future, hypothetical increases in herd size would have a very significant warming impact. I might point out that some of Ireland's trading partners are planning to increase their herds substantially over the next 30 years. This is one reason why Ireland could have a profound geopolitical impact by starting to report warming impact of emissions in its contributions to the UNFCCC system because we absolutely must discourage countries or at least make it clear to them what they are doing if they increase their herds. They are creating huge amounts of unacknowledged warming.

Would Professor Allen agree that if methane has had this warming impact and if future methane increases would have a greater warming impact, it is also true that reducing methane would have a cooling impact?

Professor Myles Allen

Yes. I would characterise it that it would have the same impact on global temperature as taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. If you reduce a herd it has the same impact on global temperature as planting a lot of trees, actively taking CO2 out of the atmosphere. That is why I say that I do not understand why there needs to be a fight over this because actually, that is a good thing. It is simply not acknowledged in the way that we characterise methane's impact at the moment. If it were acknowledged it might go quite a long way to diffuse farmers' concerns. I can understand that farmers are concerned if they are being asked to reduce global temperatures without that service being acknowledged, whereas if you calculated the impact of interventions on global temperatures, it would be acknowledged. That does not dictate policy, I should stress, it just acknowledges the outcome of policy.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner

There is some confusion over whether methane matters once it is biogenic versus fossil. It is important to mention that if you have a constant source of methane, say, a constant cow herd, then an almost equal amount of methane produced is also destroyed by a process called hydroxyl oxidation not leading to additional warming. A constant source of methane or a near-constant source of methane does not add significant additional warming. If you grow herd sizes, for example, you increase methane. That will increase warming, and significantly so. However, if you manage to reduce methane, which is what we just did here in the State of California, by 10% to 30%, say, then that reduction of methane leads to a reduction in warming.

This is really important to mention. If they view methane not as a challenge but as an opportunity, our farmers could become part of a climate solution. It is really important to tell farmers that methane is only a problem if we ignore it and do not manage it. If we do manage it, we can be part of a solution.

I thank all our guests for being here. As I am sure they are aware, these areas can be incredibly complex. They become more complex when we get evidence that suggests that the accounting and calculation model we are basing all of these conversations on may actually be flawed. I have a question for Professor Allen with regard to the different types of methane. As I understand from the evidence we have received, there is biogenic methane, which is emitted from cattle and has been a focal point of conversation in Ireland, and there is non-biogenic methane that basically comes from mining. Is that correct? Could Professor Allen differentiate between the two in terms of how they are currently calculated and how he sees that they should be calculated?

Professor Myles Allen

They are treated pretty much identically at present. I do not want to spend a long time on this because I do not think it is particularly pertinent to the Irish situation. In 1,000 years' time, it will be the methane released from mining that we will care about. It will not be methane any more. It will be carbon dioxide because it will have oxidised in the atmosphere. It is the carbon dioxide that is our long-term multi-century legacy.

I will stop Professor Allen there on the basis of time. He has spoken about the need to achieve geological net zero. I do not know if this is his area of expertise but I wonder if he could speak to what those mining operations that are emitting this methane are actually used for? In many instances we would not have products like this smartphone and other technologies were it not for those activities. Is that correct? The essential question is if, at a global level, Professor Allen sees a route to achieving that geological net zero.

Professor Myles Allen

The word "net" is important there. The companies that are taking fossil carbon out of the ground need to be made responsible for putting it back. They are more than capable of doing so already. I would love to have that conversation but it is not relevant to methane. It is relevant to the sectoral targets and the conversations the members are about to have.

I think it is because part of the problem we have had in this country is that when it comes to imposing taxes on ordinary consumers or penalising ordinary workers or farmers there is no problem and we can move at the speed of light. When it comes to actually addressing data centres, private jet travel or areas that are actually the real causes of pollution it is very much a case of see no evil, hear no evil.

Mr. Hourigan may wish to respond to my next set of questions. Do the witnesses believe we have an inbuilt deficiency in how we have been approaching our climate action obligations by not assessing on a farm-by-farm basis or having any method or plan to assess the sequestration or storage and emissions that are taking place on each farm so we can reward good practices and address bad practices without having these crazy conversations about linear cuts or whatever the case may be?

Mr. John Hourigan

Absolutely. How I ended up here is that I got my Bord Bia carbon footprint, which indicated I was emitting 714 tonnes of carbon dioxide. I talked to a professor in the University of Limerick who told me my forestry was removing about 400 tonnes and my grass was removing around another 300 or 400 tonnes, so I was net neutral. Is that not what we all want to be? If more farmers were net neutral, we would not have a problem but we are not allowed to account for what we are removing. Down the line, if we are not allowed account for the removals by our forestry and grassland, it is a pointless discussion. We are going nowhere.

Ms Nadaline Webster

To speak to that, from a strategic point of view, I want to lay out very clearly in layman's terms what is being offered to farmers at the moment. We have initial estimates included in our opening statement that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, says are plus or minus anywhere between 20% and 50%. Our current statement on emissions may well be 50% out. It may be 50% above that. Our research from VistaMilk SFI suggests that methane from dairy cows was overestimated by 18%. When we bring in reductions in methane, to which target are we expected to apply them? Should it be the target that was set in 2018 that may or may not be accurate or a new target that is going to be reassessed now? The same uncertainty factors apply to ongoing estimates of what we are producing. There is a tier 1, 2 and 3 system provided by the IPCC to measure methane emissions. Then we have sectoral divisions which set all of the removals in an industry separate from agriculture and all of the emissions in agriculture. That is contributed in no small part to the reputational crisis the industry is in.

To put it in businesslike terms, I ask members to imagine if a company asked to hire me to make a 30% reduction in its expenditure and an unspecified increase in revenue. I ask what the current expenditure is and the company says it is €22 million. I would say "Wow, that is big" and ask to see the accounts. The company says "No" and that the figure is an estimate. It has some figures but they show what companies like this one emit. It says the figure could be out by between 20% and 50%. I ask how it will measure the reductions I make and the company says it will apply the same estimates. What credit will I get for increasing revenue? Will that be offset against any issues we experience in reductions in expenditure? The company tells me I will be doing it but the increase is actually going to be credited to a different department. I ask if there are penalties for failure to meet these targets. The company says there probably are but it cannot tell me what they are. I ask for a detailed strategy document that makes recommendations for actions and projects likely outcomes from the decisions we make. The company says it does not have one. Am I going to sign that contract?

The Government needs to understand that is what it is asking from farmers right now. There are massive uncertainties. We are here having a conversation on a scientific basis, which I do my best to keep up with, but I think we can all admit that on a national basis, we do not necessarily understand the fine detail of the science; we understand the broad strokes. The agricultural sector is different from other sectors in the sense that what we are applying is a lot more complex. The science in respect of it is still evolving. The measurements are still evolving. I have yet to see a comprehensive roadmap towards how we are going to make this happen without the rural economy falling apart. That is really difficult. From a business perspective, I would say we do not have the tools we need to successfully complete this project. We are making decisions right now on foot of acknowledged incorrect data. If any company came to me with that proposal, I would say I am really sorry but I cannot help.

Will Professor Allen comment on the farm-by-farm assessment and whether we should have a route enabled for that? Ms Webster talked about a number of figures being out. She made reference to dairy emissions being overestimated by 18%. Does Professor Allen share the view that the figures we are working on could be as inaccurate as that?

Professor Myles Allen

More accurate measurement can be addressed and there is a lot of work going on in Ireland to improve the accuracy of these estimates, which is commendable. Progress can be made there. There is an inaccuracy, one that is completely avoidable, which is reporting stuff in a way that does not reflect impact on global temperature. That is what I have been focusing on. It is this completely avoidable error that results from reporting methane as if it is carbon dioxide equivalent. That is something we can fix.

Dealing with the uncertainties Ms Webster has just spoken about will take time and a lot of effort in terms of pinning down these sources and sinks better.

We could fix the problem of not reporting the warming impact tomorrow. It requires exactly the same inputs to calculate the warming impact of Mr. Hourigan's farm as are required to calculate the nominal carbon footprint. Therefore, it is possible to calculate on a farm-by-farm level the impact on global temperature. If that were to be done, it would be interesting for Ireland's farmers. They would discover the things they could do to help reduce global temperatures. If they were planning on doing something like massive herd expansion, they would realise that would have an extremely negative impact on global temperatures and they might be discouraged from doing it. It would be an enlightening exercise for everybody.

As I keep emphasising, this issue with reporting is not a problem we need to have. It is straightforward to calculate the warming impact from exactly the same inputs we use already to calculate carbon footprint.

Ms Nadaline Webster

I should clarify that my comments related to the current proposed system and not to the system Professor Allen has put forward.

I get that. I have a brief question for Professor Allen. Am I correct in saying that for his system of accounting to be taken on board, we would need to get international agreement, which would essentially mean a new Paris accord?

Professor Myles Allen

Not at all.

Professor Myles Allen

In the Paris Agreement, the so-called Paris rulebook, parties are encouraged to report "the information [needed] for clarity, transparency and understanding" with their reports to the UNFCCC. In its reporting to the UNFCCC in the context of its national inventory and its forward scenarios, Ireland could report its impact on global temperature. What information could possibly be more relevant to transparency, clarity and understanding than Ireland's actual impact on global temperature? Thereby, Ireland could set an example to the world. Indeed, if Ireland's competitors are increasing their herds and having a highly negative impact on global temperature, then the conversation could be started with them on why they were not reporting their impact on global temperature. After all, we have a collective temperature goal and perhaps countries should report what they are doing to global temperature.

Does Professor Allen not see a potential issue arising if different states are reporting their emissions in different ways?

Professor Myles Allen

I am absolutely not advocating that reporting not be done following the standard rules. I am simply saying that this is about additional information that can be reported along with Ireland's reports to the UNFCCC. In fact, that body encourages countries to report additional information which is relevant. I should have made it clear throughout that I am not advocating throwing out the old system. I appreciate a lot is built on it and so on. I am just saying let us augment it with this simple extra information about what we are doing to global temperature.

I have three more members who wish to put questions and we are running over time. I will confine these speakers to five minutes each. I call Senator Paul Daly.

I have some questions based on what has come before. I only find one thing more confusing than scientists talking about science and that is lawyers talking about law. In that comparative context, I am coming at this matter purely from the perspective of someone who is a farmer and who represents farmers. It is the livelihoods of farmers that we are talking about, ultimately, regardless of the language we are using. What needs to be done here is to get to a solution that can maintain the livelihoods of farmers while addressing this issue. I am not a denier of climate change. We must get to the bottom of this issue in layman's terms for those out there who are watching with bated breath because this topic concerns their livelihoods. This is what we are, ultimately, talking about.

I will ask my questions and then the witnesses can answer. Time is limited. I will start with Dr. Mitloehner. Based on his experience of what he has seen in Ireland, how comparable is our situation with what has been done in California? Is it comparable? Would that approach be workable here? Are some of those solutions perhaps dependent on geography or based on the local climate? If he was starting with a blank page in Ireland as opposed to where he is, what would he recommend and how would he see this process working? I ask this because the reductions he spoke about are massive and this is the way to go. In his answer, he might again refer to some more of the emerging technologies that may not have hit these shores yet, that might become available to us or that might even turn out to be more advantageous in an Irish context than where Dr. Mitloehner is based and in other parts of the world.

I ask all the witnesses to comment on something I read some time ago. It was a statement by Professor Alice Stanton. We are talking here about the knee-jerk reaction and the narrative is herd reduction. We are talking about reducing meat and dairy production. We are all aware of the extraordinary health benefits of those products. I refer to protein, iron, zinc and the B vitamins, especially B12. Professor Stanton said that if we were to sit down and to do an analysis of the substitutes and alternatives being proposed for these high-quality food products, it would be found that the carbon footprint for the nutrient-equivalent amount of food would be higher. Has anybody done this research? Based on that perspective, will we be explaining to our children, grandchildren and future generations who look back to where we are now and are wondering about the fact that while we were in an alarming situation and did our best possible to address it, that we did everything wrong and left those future generations in a worse situation through diet, health and the lack of the desired impact when it came to global warming? Based on what I heard this morning about the natural cycle, as it was explained and as best I could comprehend it, is there potential to do, or has anybody already undertaken, a mathematical or scientific experiment concerning global warming and temperature control and what would be the carbon footprint of the alternatives if we were to go with the knee-jerk reaction of reducing the herd?

Dr. Frank Mitloehner

We have done research at the University of California, Davis, comparing animal-sourced foods with plant-based alternatives. It is a very complex issue. For the most part, plant-based alternatives have a relatively lower carbon footprint simply because there is an addition at appropriate levels to animal-sourced foods. There is not much discussion about that. There are other environmental impact categories, however, where the plant-based alternatives are performing lower. Energy consumption, for example, is, in many cases, higher. Nutrient equivalency is not the same. Even though some of the plant-based alternatives might have the same percentage of protein, most animal-sourced foods come with a package of multiple essential nutrients. The Senator mentioned some of them, including iron, selenium and vitamin B12. Many of those are very digestible and valuable to human nutrition. There has been a lot of exaggeration in respect of advertising for those plant-based alternatives. There is room for them but it remains relatively small. I do not think there is any major change in nutrition percentages in animal-based versus plant-based foods.

With respect to the Senator's question on mitigation approaches for Ireland, as I mentioned in my written comments and in what I read to the committee, where Ireland is so different is that the country largely has a pastoral animal agricultural sector. Many other developed countries do not. In California, we have little in the way of pastoral systems. Most animals are in free stall barns and other barns. The manure goes into collection areas. Ireland, by and large, has manure that is deposited on the land and on pasture. It is incorporated into the soil. Manure is not stored as much here and it is not being managed as much. The main emission source from Irish animal agriculture is enteric methane, that is, the methane belched out.

Ireland is in a lucky situation compared with the United States, where we are not allowed to self-feed additives that lay claim to reducing methane, because Irish farmers can. Ireland has several tools at its disposal that have been shown in peer-reviewed, published research to reduce enteric methane. The question Irish researchers have to figure out is how to get these additives into animals that are normally grazing. For example, a dairy cow that is milked every day could be fed an additive in addition to the concentrate she consumes while being milked. There are other approaches. Reductions in enteric emissions would be very important in the Irish context because they constitute the majority of the carbon footprint of the Irish herd. Ireland has an advantage and will reach its goals faster than we have been doing this year because its focus should be on enteric.

Deputy Browne is due to be next but he does not seem to be available. Deputy Nolan may go ahead.

I thank the Chairman. As a rural Teachta Dála from the constituency of Laois-Offaly, I, like many rural Teachtaí Dála, am very concerned about the impact of what is coming down the tracks and what is being imposed on us. The economic impact report commissioned by the Irish Farmer's Journal and done by KPMG showed us clearly what lies ahead, which is the destruction of Irish farming and the family farm if a blunt instrument like what is being proposed is used.

My question relates to the fact that all the good work being done on sequestration of carbon is not being accounted for. We have grassland, hedgerows and forestry. Would it not make sense to get farmers to get more involved in afforestation? Would it not tick that box? Dr. Mitloehner mentioned the fact we do not know how much carbon sequestration is being done by beef farmers. Does he feel an assessment needs to be carried out on the positive work that is being done here by beef farmers in sequestering carbon before a blunt instrument or a calculation is decided? Any pragmatic and logical person would say we should do the assessment first, rather than plunging a whole sector into chaos.

Mr. John Hourigan

Could I make a comment on that?

All right but we will let Deputy Nolan finish first.

I would like opinions from the witnesses on that.

Moving to my next question, the global population is set to treble and we have a war in Ukraine and we all know we cannot get certain food products because of it. Why is there not a special case being made for agriculture in the EU in light of the fact there are issues around food security and farming organisations such as the IFA have said any unfair calculation will threaten food security? Why is there not common sense here, and some logic? I would like Mr. Hourigan's thoughts on that. Does he feel our MEPs need to fight to make a special case for agriculture and for it to be done across Europe?

Mr. John Hourigan

Yes. The special case is one thing but the facts are so important here. The removals by Irish forestry are huge. A paper was produced last week by Gary Lanigan of Teagasc. In the inventory you will find they say Irish mineral soils remove 2.3 million tonnes per year. Gary Lanigan's research has shown that is an underestimation by approximately seven times. Irish mineral soils, according to him, are approximately 15 million tonnes per year. The inventory says 2.3 million. He also mentioned the research on peatlands, which is not completed yet, but he thinks they are overestimated by a factor of at least 2. They have 8.5 million tonnes in for emissions by peatlands. It is probably nearer to 4 million but there is no accurate figures on that. The figures by Gary Lanigan are out, they are current, they are correct and they are massive. That is 1.4 to 1.5 tonnes per acre per annum being removed by Irish grassland farmers. According to the research in places like Florida and Georgia, they are dealing with very depleted soils but they are doing 3.6 tonnes per acre per annum and their method of combating climate change is intensive, grass-based dairy. That is extraordinary. They say the way to take carbon out of the air is to convert the arable land to grass and put intensive grazing animals on it and that is what we are doing.

Mr. John Hourigan

I think we are in a win-win situation.

Ms Nadaline Webster

Chairman, could I add something?

I ask Professor Allen to answer the questions Deputy Nolan put there.

Professor Myles Allen

I would be happy to. On the Deputy's first point about rural constituencies, I want to remind her of Dr. Mitloehner's point about how we do not need farmers to feel threatened by this. In fact, it could easily be seen as an opportunity for farming. We are sort of saddled with this misperception of conflict because of the incorrect way in which we measure the impact of farming on climate. Notwithstanding all the other accounting and measurement issues that have been raised, this is a problem we do not need to have. If we actually measure the impact of the farmers in the Deputy's constituency on climate, on global temperature, rather than on this carbon footprint, farmers would be reassured by the results. That would be a very useful thing for Ireland to do and indeed to show to the rest of the European Union as a way forward. There may be other farming communities in the EU that have not got their minds around this issue as much as the Irish. I dare speculate here but maybe Irish farmers are a bit ahead of some of the other countries in the EU in thinking about this issue, so Ireland could do a favour to its European partners by pointing out that just with this simple, additional piece of information, that is, impact on global temperature, you can do a great deal to diffuse the animosity in this whole discussion.

I leave the last comment to Dr. Mitloehner.

Dr. Frank Mitloehner

I completely agree. When it comes to methane, there are of course sources we are all aware of, such as cattle's enteric emissions, their manure and other issues. They are sources but they are also sinks. Having been to Ireland twice over the past few years and having talked about these topics several times, I emphasise it is important for a country like Ireland that is largely pasture-based to know under what conditions throughout its geography lands can trap and capture carbon and to what extent. At some point carbon is plateauing, carbon capture is plateauing and no longer increasing. There are some lands that capture more than others but it is very important that Ireland assesses not just the sources but also the sinks and how it can amplify the importance of its sinks and how it can increase soil carbon sequestration, for example, through improved pasture management, grazing management and so on. That is very important. I emphasised the need for that two years ago when I visited and again two weeks ago, or whenever it was.

May I make a concluding comment?

I thank all our witnesses for their comments. There certainly is a problem. In the current debate farmers are being demonised and scapegoated, unfortunately. There needs to be a change in mindset because they are playing their role, believe it or not, in protecting our environment but that is not recognised.

With respect, Deputy, we have brought in these men today - and ladies, I am sorry - to give information on the subject.

It was just to take up on the point of the misperception.

Yes, but we brought in these witnesses to answer questions-----

-----on the calculations of methane.

I understand. I have the briefing in front of me and I spoke on the calculations.

I spoke on that specifically.

The point-----

I just want to end on that point. That is a point we are all trying to get across as rural Teachtaí Dála. I did speak to the briefing note, very much so-----

Yes, I accept that.

-----and I would like to thank all our guests for our time.

Okay. I thank the Deputy.

I ask the two scientists to give me one indication. Let us say Ireland has 7 or 8 million cattle. If we in Ireland were to reduce methane by 20% what would it do to world temperatures? Would it do anything?

Professor Myles Allen

Should I speak to that?

Professor Myles Allen

If that number is expressed, accounting for the size of the world population that is Ireland's, then it would look very substantial. It is very easy for a small country to say, "Oh, we are just a small country so we are not making that much difference." We get the same in the UK. Despite the fact that historically we are very large emitters we love pointing out that we are only-----

Temperature-wise I am talking about.

Professor Myles Allen

I could calculate it for the Deputy but the point is that for the general discussion one has to think about what would happen if the world did what we are doing. If the world was to reduce methane emissions by 20% it would have a substantial impact. This is why I believe that Ireland could play an outsized role by showing the world how to do it, how to measure it and how to document its success in affecting global temperatures by showing the world how to capture the warming impact of its actions on global temperature.

Does Professor Allen agree that it can be done the way it is being done in America by new technologies, as Dr. Mitloehner referred to? Is that possible?

Professor Myles Allen

Yes, it is clearly possible, as they have demonstrated. I appreciate that we are out of time but I wish to emphasise again that the debate on methane globally has to be kept in perspective. Even if we were to eliminate methane emissions from the entire ruminant herd worldwide we would shave a few hundredths of a degree off global temperatures.

Professor Myles Allen

That is the global number. That is a few years of fossil fuelled warming.

Professor Myles Allen

The elephant in the corner is the increase in global temperatures due to the rates of CO2 from fossil fuels. I know this is not on topic in this session but I hope the committee will be thinking about it in the next session.

We must close that now as there are other witnesses joining us remotely who have been waiting in the lobby for the past 20 minutes.

I have a couple of questions.

I had tried to get the Deputy in earlier. He can ask one question.

I have a couple of questions, the first being for Mr. Hourigan with regard to agriculture's contribution to sequestration not being properly recognised. Will he elaborate on this? What needs to be done to address this?

Mr. John Hourigan

What needs to be done is that we are allowed a net carbon footprint and if we have forestry and grassland, that the removals are accounted for so we can have a net carbon footprint. If every farmer in Ireland was net carbon neutral then we would have no problem and there would be no forestry planted until such time as that situation arises when we are allowed to account for them.

I have two quick questions for Dr. Mitloehner. There seems to be two schools of thought on how demands for methane reductions are presented and used to reduce the temperature. For policymakers this poses the distinct question about what approach would be more effective in the end target of reducing the level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. It will also pit different sectors against each other. Are these different views contributing to the confusion and the ultimate resistance to both approaches?

Did Dr. Mitloehner catch that?

Dr. Frank Mitloehner

No I did not, I am sorry.

There are two schools of thought on how the demands for methane reductions are presented and used to reduce the temperature rise. For policymakers this poses the question about what approach to take and which approach is more effective. It is pitting one sector against another sector. Are these different views contributing to the confusion and ultimately the resistance to both approaches?

Dr. Frank Mitloehner

We have observed here less of a fight of one sector against another. I am actually proud of the protocol that farming has taken, which is where the government has said this is not us using the cane approach of using rules, regulations and fines or taxation to get farmers to reduce emissions. Instead, the state said: "We value our farmers, we want to help them to reduce their carbon footprint, and we do it jointly." They have financially incentivised the reduction of methane. That was an approach that worked. That approach worked because now we have a carbon market that can be accessed by farmers that enumerates and pays them for reducing methane. Our farmers are flocking into ways to reduce methane, not just to be greener and not because it is better for the environment but also to have an additional income stream. To me, that is an approach that works. I have seen other places in the world where taxation was used or herd size reductions were used and I do not believe that these approaches work quite as well. Herd size reduction does not change the demand structure behind it. The demand is still there and will be satisfied by somebody else in the world, and this means emissions are moving from one place to another and, as I alluded to earlier, this leads to leakage that will not change our total livestock impact on climate globally.

I thank Dr. Mitloehner.

Perhaps I could ask another question.

No. I must close the session. We are miles over time.

I know you are and I appreciate that but I have just one quick one. Professor Allen has said that Ireland's Climate Change Advisory Council could calculate and publish the warming impact of different sectors of the Irish economy under different scenarios for future emissions, as does the UK's climate change committee. Has he encountered any discussion at this level on doing that into the future?

Professor Myles Allen

I fortunately had a chance to chat to Professor Peter Thorne of the Climate Change Advisory Council, and he can confirm that they absolutely can do that. It is a matter of simply raising those numbers, which they can produce into the national conversation. I must emphasise that this warming impact calculation is not complicated at all. I take the Deputy's point about not liking scientists making things complicated. He is looking here at a scientist who is desperately trying to make things simple. This one is simple. One just calculates the warming impact of activities on global temperature. A lot of the animosity should be diffused from this debate.

I thank our witnesses for a very enlightening discussion. They have done their best to stick to the agenda we had here today with regard to the calculation of methane emissions and how we can hopefully reduce them into the future. I propose to suspend the meeting briefly to bring in the witnesses for our next session.

Sitting suspended at 1.27 p.m. and resumed at 1.30 p.m.