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Agriculture is facing a momentous decision on carbon budgets

Agriculture is facing a momentous decision on carbon budgets

Over the next few months a decision on the future of Irish agriculture will be taken that may prove to be as momentous as the 1984 introduction of milk quota or our 1973 entry to the EU. Professor Gerry Boyle, Director of Teagasc refers to the publication of sectoral carbon budgets from 2021 onwards

Over the next few months a decision on the future of Irish agriculture will be taken that may prove to be as momentous as the introduction of the milk quota in 1984 or indeed our entry to the EU in 1973. I’m referring of course to the determination of the sectoral carbon budgets for the periods 2021-2025 and 2026-2030.

The Climate Change Advisory Council

The new Climate Change Advisory Council is expected to produce national budgets for these periods by the middle of June or at the latest early July, or as soon as possible following the enactment of the Climate Bill. It will be the responsibility of Government to allocate these budgets to each sector, including agriculture. It’s likely that this process could take several months given the nature of the inter-sectoral tradeoffs that will come into play.

The Council will be obliged to follow the legislation to the letter. As with any draft legislation, there are question marks over interpretation in places, particularly concerning whether “removals” or sequestration (afforestation etc.) are to be included in the targets and the treatment of biogenic methane. The target in the Climate Bill, following on from the Programme for Government, requires a reduction of 51% in total emissions by 2030 relative to 2018. This is twice the target that was agreed just two years ago by the last government. For agriculture, a 51% reduction is nearly three and a half times the top range of the target which was agreed at -10% to -15%.

The Climate Bill target requires a reduction of 51% in total emissions by 2030 relative to 2018

Whatever the sectoral target that’s to be determined, it would be most surprising if “removals” were not to be counted. After all, the target set  in the original bill included a total of 26.8 mt of CO2-equivalent “removals”. It was expected that to enable the much higher targets to be achieved that a substantially higher level of “removals” would be required. And there are a  number of possibilities for additional “removals”, including hedgerows, farm woodlands and perhaps towards the end of the decade, grasslands.

The apparent absence of “removals” in the carbon budgets in the  Bill may be no more than a drafting slip and this can be easily rectified. However, the treatment of biogenic methane may be less tractable.

Biogenic methane emissions

There has been agreement within the scientific community for several years that biogenic methane is different to other Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) in its impact on global warming. While the pulse effect of biogenic methane emissions has a very high initial impact on global warming, this effect becomes quickly dissipated, unlike other powerful GHGs such as carbon dioxide and indeed nitrous oxide. As long as biogenic methane can be stabilised, its impact on climate warming will be neutralised. And since about two thirds of agricultural emissions are made up of biogenic methane this would be a phenomenal achievement as we’d be well on the way to achieving net zero carbon. .

The Teagasc analysis of the original Bill was that if the measures in the Teagasc MACC (Marginal Abatement Cost Curve) were implemented and if animal numbers could be stabilised, then it was possible to achieve an emissions reductions target of between 10% and 15%. The recent AgClimatise publication updated this assessment and with the addition of a 20% reduction in chemical nitrogen usage, concluded that the original targets were still achievable.

This scientific perspective on biogenic methane is accepted by Teagasc and was articulated in  the recent deliberations on the 2030 Agri-Food Strategy. Consistent with the science, the 2030 Strategy has recommended that a separate target of a 10% reduction by 2030 be set for biogenic methane. The  Bill, however, on some readings at any rate, does not appear to accept this viewpoint.

If there is no distinction to be drawn in the determination of carbon budgets between biogenic methane and other GHGs at the national level, then the sector will face a huge challenge when it comes to the allocation of the national carbon budgets by sector.

A little arithmetic will help to clarify the scale of the challenge that is potentially facing agriculture.

If agricultural emissions were to fall significantly short of the overall 51% reduction, it means then the non-agricultural sectors will have to reduce their emissions by substantially more than 51%. For example, if agriculture were required to reduce its emissions by 15% (the upper limit in  the original Bill), then the non-agricultural sectors would have to reduce their emissions by 80%. Even if agriculture were required to reduce its emissions by, for instance, 33%, then the non-agricultural sectors would have to cut their emissions by 60%. Faced with these kind of tradeoffs it’s evident that the sector will have a considerable battle on its hands.

A cut of 33% in emissions, which is well short of the 51% national target, will of course have a major impact on the sector itself and on the processing and upstream and downstream sectors. Alternative options are not available on any significant scale, at least over the next decade. Land suitability and poor profitability renders most alternatives that have been put forward not fit for the task of replacing reduced activity.  There will always be niche opportunities that will be pursued by entrepreneurial farmers but the scale of adjustment that would be required, even for a 33% cut, will require options that can be readily mainstreamed.

For any given emissions reduction that is imposed on the sector, the split between biogenic methane and other GHGs will be important from the perspective of feasibility. Again let’s assume that the sector is required to reduce emissions by 33%. If biogenic methane emissions were required to fall by 10% by 2030, then other agricultural emissions would have to fall by 77% to achieve the overall 33% reduction. If the biogenic methane reduction were to be doubled to 20%, then the other gases would need to be reduced by 58%. Reductions of non-methane emissions by 77% or 58% are very difficult to envisage actually happening and, at the very best, it would take a considerable period of time for changes of this magnitude to be achieved.

In conclusion

Potentially momentous decisions for the agricultural sector will be taken over the next six months. Clarification is urgently needed on the inclusion of “removals” and the treatment of biogenic methane in the Climate Bill. Livelihoods are at stake within farming and in the wider rural economy. Science has provided solutions and more are in the pipeline. Teagasc recently shortly launched its Signpost Programme in collaboration with industry partners. But policies will be needed to enable and encourage farmers to adopt carbon mitigation and sequestration measures. Measures will also be needed to enable farmers to shift from existing enterprises to other profitable and sustainable alternatives. Farmers haven’t yet received much mention in the debate on “Just Transition” in the context of climate change but given the scale of adjustment that could be required within the sector, this will more than likely change in the weeks and months ahead.

Further Information:

If you liked this article you might like to watch the recording of the Signpost Series Webinar: AgClimatise - A roadmap to Climate Neutrality for Irish Agriculture 

You might also like to read ‘An Analysis of the Cost of the Abatement of Ammonia Emissions in Irish Agriculture to 2030’ which outlines the steps that can be taken to reduce ammonia emissions from Irish agriculture and the costs of achieving this. The document was prepared by the Teagasc Gaseous Emission Working Group.

Or read this shorter article Return of the MACC which was published in TResearch - Autumn 2018, a popular science publication of Teagasc which aims to communicate Teagasc research and improve the public awareness and understanding of agri-food research.