At some point we will have to have a clear felling and, as members will note, the graph will start to go down. That will not happen in the short term. We reckon that up to 2040, as shown on the graph, we will be in positive territory and then we will have to have a significant felling of recent afforestation and that will push the graph in the opposite direction.
However, grassland has been mentioned. Our view on grassland is that the science on it is at an early stage yet. We would be confident that the evidence will be positive in regard to grassland as a significant sequester of carbon but, bearing in mind the way in which the inventories are calculated and so on, what one has to show is that relative to a baseline, the carbon sequestration has been increased because obviously there has been grassland on the baseline as well. It is a significant issue for Ireland particularly because of the different agricultural practices across the European Union. Grassland is far more important for our agricultural sector than it is for that of our continental neighbours and because we know it is positive for carbon production, that might be an argument we could use in looking at how policy might be played out at European level.
The other area which is important and about which we are conservative is the potential in regard to bio-enery crops. I would not want to overstate this. It is driven largely by economics but we believe there is a potential of up to 1.3 million tonnes of carbon that could be saved or available if it was to be offset against agricultural emissions. If one totals those numbers, one would note that up to 2020 at least a significant pot of offsets is available should we be able to persuade our international or European colleagues that this should go towards the benefit of the agricultural sector.
I do not want to dwell on this point regarding this chart, which is complicated. The basic point we would make here is the critical argument in regard to the so-called international leakage problem, which has been well accepted. Essentially, this raises the issue of fundamental conflict potentially between climate change and food security under a crude national type targeting arrangement. On this chart is shown the production of carbon per kilogram of milk equivalent and kilogram of beef equivalent. These are numbers that Teagasc has prepared and published in a recent international peer review journal. We can see here that Ireland fares very positively on an international comparison. We produce by and large the least amount of carbon per unit of output. Another graph from the FAO illustrates the same point as far as temperate grasslands are concerned. They produce the least amount of carbon per unit of output. Our view is that this should be ideally the kind of target towards which we should be working because it is a target that enables us to square what appears to be a conflict between food security, on the one hand, and emission reductions, on the other.
There is a key point at the bottom of the graph set out in red. For example, if 50% of Irish beef were to be produced in South America because of a cap being imposed on Irish output, that would increase overall global emissions because of the level of intensity of emissions production per unit of output. Many international scientists working in this area are coming to the view that in the food area the only sensible kind of target is a carbon footprint target as opposed to an aggregate country level target. Obviously there must be international agreement on this but this is a critical issue, particularly for the Irish sector.
Basically our approach, which one might say is probably a fairly radical one, is focused not so much on the level of the target, as such, but the nature of the target itself. We certainly believe it makes much more scientific sense to focus on a carbon footprint target and that also enables us to tackle the very real issue of climate change. That would enable us to live within the constraints of the Food Harvest 2020 targets. As we have said and pointed out in our research, and this is something we need to communicate this to farmers in particular, increased production efficiency has a one for one relationship with carbon reduction per unit of output. In other words, there is a potential here for a win-win result. This is the positive story. As some of the Deputies have recognised, we can simultaneously achieve and contribute towards improved food security, which has become a very major issue in recent times. It has flared up because of increased green prices but we can square what might appear a contradiction between food security and a reduced carbon footprint. That is possible. This approach would of itself prevent carbon leakage. As is very evident in Food Harvest 2020, it would allow us a very positive marketing advantage internationally. We are working with Bord Bia, as Deputy Sargent said, to provide the evidence that will stand up to scrutiny as to the low intensity of carbon output per unit of product that we produce. We are aware this would require international agreement. There is certainly a consensus among scientists now that this is the way forward and New Zealand is strongly leading the field in this respect.
To return to the issue of afforestation and the potential up to 2020 for offsets of up to 5 million tonnes of carbon - I hope the diagram on this is not too complicated - all these different lines represent different annual planting levels and the carbon sequestration is on the vertical axis. The black line, which is the lower line, roughly corresponds to a sequestration of approximately 4 million tonnes of carbon per year. If one increases plantation, as is the Government's stated objective, the red line shows we will move up to approximately 5 million tonnes. However, it is important to note that this will not last. Long after many of us are gone, the graph begins turning in the opposite direction simply because of felling. Offsets will certainly help, therefore, but they are absolutely not a long-term resolution if there is to be a significant contribution from agriculture towards a reduction in emissions.
Another point which is important to emphasise is that while afforestation can contribute via sequestration through increased planting rates, that will also affect the base level. Presumably one must allow in one's inventory calculation for the level of planting that was taking place in the base period. It is overly simplistic to conclude that we would absolutely gain to the tune of the projected 5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent saved per annum. Although we have taken a reasonable estimate of planting, it is certainly on the optimistic side for that reason.
In terms of obstacles and potential solutions, certainly up to 2020 there is a great deal of merit in looking at aggregating the agricultural sector with the forestry and bio-energy areas. Both are land-using activities and there is great logic in merging them. That is the argument we would make, but I emphasise that it is not a long-term resolution. We would also incentivise farm forestry. Farmers who plant forests also rear animals, so there is an in-built incentive not only from an economic point of view, but also in terms of strategy to mitigate their carbon production.
The same applies in regard to the displacement of fossil fuels. There is scope there, as we pointed out in regard to bio-energy crops, but there are several economic issues that are currently inhibiting the potential in this sector, as I am sure the committee is aware. Again, the solution is to credit the agricultural sector with the benefits that are generated for carbon production coming through bio-energy.
To summarise, there is no question but that agriculture has the potential to contribute to the greenhouse gas solution. However, there is a number of what we would classify as institutional barriers which need to be overcome. As a scientific organisation, we are of the view that the current target is wholly inappropriate for agriculture. There is an emerging consensus among the scientific community in this regard. The problem requires political and intergovernmental agreement, and that is clearly a major obstacle in itself. In the short term - certainly up to 2020 and perhaps as far as 2030 - it would be of major assistance if the agricultural sector were merged with the land-use change and forestry sectors in terms of the potential that exists to offset carbon production. There is also great potential in regard to facilitating carbon off-sets for bio-fuels and bio-energy. We should also bear in mind the continuing underlying contribution agriculture will make in terms of improved efficiency and the consequential impacts for carbon production.
These are all positive outcomes. However, I stress again that half of the emissions for the foreseeable future are due to enteric fermentation and we do not as yet have any realistic technology that can address that problem. If these barriers are not overcome, if some of these measures are not put in place and if agriculture is to share the same reduction as other sectors, then the impact will logically have to fall on the cattle sector. This would have major economic consequences and certainly would negatively affect the Food Harvest 2020 targets. Moreover, there would potentially be the problem of carbon leakage.