I thank the committee for the invitation to address it today. I am the policy co-ordinator of Stop Climate Chaos, which is an advocacy coalition for faster and fairer climate action. We represent faith-based, development, environmental, social justice and community organisations throughout Ireland. We welcome the initiative of the committee to discuss the role of agriculture in climate action. As Professor Matthews highlighted, agriculture is responsible for 35% of Ireland’s annual greenhouse gas emissions and is the largest sectoral contributor to Ireland’s overall climate impact.
The EPA stated in its most recent emission projection reports that emissions from the sector are increasing and that they are driven by increasing dairy cattle numbers and associated nitrogen inputs. The dairy sector currently contributes half of all of Ireland’s agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and has been driving the increase in agricultural emissions in recent years. Recent Central Statistics Office, CSO, data show that there was a 41% increase in the number of dairy cows between 2010 and 2019, making Ireland an outlier in comparison to other EU member states. We find it worrying to note that the Teagasc dairy strategy to 2027 envisages yet further growth in herd numbers, a goal that is totally incompatible with climate policy. If current projections for the sector are realised in terms of animal numbers and milk and beef output, there will be an inevitable increase in absolute greenhouse gas emissions, regardless of whether on-farm efficiencies are implemented.
On-farm efficiency measures do not in themselves reduce total climate impacts. Total absolute emissions of greenhouse gases and nitrate-ammonia impacts must be reduced, which is almost impossible to envisage without a reduction in livestock numbers. However, reliance on the uptake of voluntary efficiency measures that were drawn up by Teagasc and in the more recent Ag Climatise roadmap, which was published by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine at the end of 2020, fails to adequately address the underlying drivers of emissions: cattle numbers and nitrogen inputs in the form of fertilisers and animal feed. The Ag Climatise roadmap is not consistent with the programme for Government commitment to reduce emissions by on average 7% per annum or 51% by 2030, as the strategy assumes a stabilisation as opposed to an absolute reduction of methane emissions by 2030.
Climate action policies for the agricultural sector have to date been based on assumptions about farmers' responses to theoretical cost savings from voluntary mitigation and efficiency measures, as promoted by Teagasc. However, even if fully implemented, these measures will not address the multiple environmental impacts of the sector, nor can they be scaled up quickly enough to deliver the required emissions reductions in a timely fashion. This approach does not consider the effect of policies to expand agricultural output or consider rebound and interaction effects, and is thus somewhat skewed towards business as usual. Without an overarching mitigation policy, measures are merely cost savings for farming that rebound to increase emissions, as we have seen over the past decade. Moreover, the focus on cost efficiency falsely assumes that if farms are efficient in the sense of maximising outputs per unit of input in the form of feed and fertiliser, they are environmentally sustainable. In fact, the only important measure of climate and air pollution action is absolute, instead of relative, annual emissions as reported in the national inventory of greenhouse gas emissions that is published annually by the EPA. Therefore, efficiency measures in the absence of legally binding targets or a cap are a distraction. Agricultural emissions of methane, nitrous oxide and ammonia have been increasing steadily since 2011 due to dairy expansion and greatly increased nitrogen inputs, with only a minimal reduction in beef cattle numbers.
Requiring herd reductions from beef farmers will not by itself address the water and biodiversity impacts from the dairy sector that we highlighted in our report, jointly published with the environmental pillar and the Sustainable Water Network, SWAN. We concluded that these reductions could even lead to rebound effects as more land becomes available for silage production for dairy cows. The Climate Change Advisory Council undertook a special review of agriculture, forestry and land use in 2019, but assumed in its scenarios that no herd reductions would take place in the dairy sector. Thus it ignored the growing ecological burden of intensive dairy farming in many areas of the country. Farmers must be supported with policies that provide both stable incomes through diversification and that facilitate reduced stocking rates with decreased inputs.
Without substantial and sustained reductions in agricultural methane over the next decade, it will not be possible to meet current national and EU climate targets. It is not expected that agricultural emissions should fall as fast as emissions in other sectors of the economy over the next decade. It is expected, however, that there must be substantial year-on-year reductions in absolute emissions from agriculture. For the Government to allow one economic sector in society, a sector that represents one third of Ireland’s emissions, to simply continue business as usual and to insist that the rest of the economy reduce its emissions by two thirds to achieve the overall target for 2030 is highly unfair and impractical. Dr. Paul Deane of University College Cork, UCC, has estimated that if agriculture only achieved 10% emissions reductions, the buildings, energy and transport sectors would have to do more than 70%. Steadily and permanently reducing agricultural methane in the near term, with annual reductions in the order of 3% to 5% from 2022 to 2030, will be necessary to limit overshoot of Ireland’s national "fair share" of the remaining global carbon budget that is aligned with meeting the Paris Agreement commitments.
Policies that support carbon sequestration, although highly important for carbon storage in trees, soils, hedgerows and wetlands, are neither reliable nor permanent methods to offset greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture or fossil fuel combustion.
Furthermore, biomethane production at a large scale involves risks, uncertainties and high costs.
Changing the types and quantities of foods we consume could also have a significant impact on emission reductions. Shifting diets in line with health recommendations would have the positive benefit of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and freeing up land for other uses. However, it needs to be acknowledged that while there is potential for emissions reductions from a shift towards plant-based diets among Irish consumers, a reduction in the consumption of animal-sourced food in Ireland is unlikely to have a significant impact on Ireland's total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. This is because most agricultural commodities are produced for export markets. For this reason, the Government, in its approach to agriculture and food production, must address the total impacts of all food production in Ireland on a territorial basis regardless of where the food is eventually consumed.
We have a series of recommendations in our report and I will highlight a few of them here for the committee. The first is that we recommend that the Government needs to publish a revised roadmap for agricultural emissions reductions that sets out a timescale to achieve, at a minimum, compliance with EU and national law. We recommend that the Government put in place a declining cap on total national reactive nitrogen and phosphorus usage; consult with stakeholders and implement measures based on international best practice to limit and reverse recent expansion in the dairy sector to bring sectoral greenhouse gas emissions back to 2011 levels by 2025 or as soon as feasible thereafter, with immediate priority given to farms in sensitive catchment areas; and put in place compensatory measures to facilitate and incentivise herd reductions and diversification in the beef suckler and finishing sectors.
I thank the committee for the invitation and look forward to taking any questions.