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Is a reduction in the national herd needed to achieving targets for agricultural greenhouse gas emissions?

29 July 2019
Type Media Article

by Professor Frank O'Mara, Director of research Teagasc

The debate on how agriculture deals with greenhouse gas emissions has intensified in recent months with the publication of the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Change, the government’s new Climate Action Plan, and the Climate Change Advisory Council Annual Review which had a special focus on agriculture and analysed the impact of reducing the suckler (beef) cow herd by up to 50%. As agricultural emissions are closely tied to livestock numbers, this would certainly reduce emissions, but can we reach our emissions targets without the need for such a large reduction in suckler cows? The answer is yes we can, but we do need to implement the mitigation measures as set out in the Teagasc MACC (marginal abatement cost curve) paper if we are to reach the targets.

To put all this in context, Ireland will not meet its 2020 target for a 20% reduction in emissions without buying emission credits at significant cost to the taxpayer. In fact our emissions are rising in recent years not falling, and we have an even more challenging target for 2030, a 30% reduction.  Agricultural emissions are 32% of the national total, and are even higher (45%) when emissions from energy and heavy industry are excluded as these are dealt with separately on an EU wise basis. This is a bigger share of national emissions than any other EU country, but this fact should not be used to castigate agriculture. It is just a reflection of the size of agriculture within our economy, particularly dairy and beef production. To put this in context, we have 1.4 bovines for every person in the country, whereas in the UK, there are six times more people than bovines. Relative to our European neighbours, agriculture is much more important in our economy so we should not have a collective national guilt about the share of national emissions coming from agriculture, it is just a fact of life.

What these data do illustrate is that Ireland cannot tackle its national emissions and achieve the targets we have signed up to without agriculture playing its part and reducing emissions. By and large, farmers and the food industry accept this. We are actually starting from a good place in that the carbon footprint of Irish milk is joint lowest in the EU according to one major study and our beef has the 5th lowest footprint. The carbon footprint is the amount of emissions of CO2 caused by producing a kg of beef or a litre of milk. Our carbon footprints are low, and actually getting lower year by year, but the number of litres of milk and kilos of beef is rising, so the overall emissions are rising. Sometimes people make the justified point that cutting the amount of beef or milk produced in Ireland could result in more being produced in other countries to fill the gap and if these countries have a higher footprint per kg beef or milk than we do, then overall global emissions will rise. This is correct, but our targets which are binding are in terms of the absolute amount of emissions not our footprint per kilo of beef or milk. The challenge is to achieve our targets and cut our emissions without having an involuntary reduction in animal numbers and production of food. 

The Annual Review of the Climate Change Advisory Council which was published on the 24th July sets out the emissions reductions which would result if suckler cow numbers fell by up to 50% by 2030.  In doing so it was fulfilling its role to provide advice to government. This should not be confused with government policy, which has recently been set for the next decade in the Climate Action Plan. In this Action Plan, we have targets for the different sources of emissions for the first time, which have to be met collectively to ensure Ireland reaches its 2030 emissions targets. We are now clear on what agriculture must achieve: get emissions back to a range of 17.5 to 19 mt by 2030, which is a cut of 10-15% on the projected levels in 2030 relative to 2017. The agri sector will also deliver 2.68 mt per year though land use (forestry and soil management). Teagasc in the MACC paper has set out 26 actions that can be implemented across agricultural production, carbon abatement from land use such as forestry and soil management, and providing renewable alternative to fossil fuels, and these form the basis of the Climate Action Plan for agriculture. The targets set in the Plan can be achieved in a scenario where the national herd is similar in size in 2030 to today, albeit with a moderate increase in dairy cow numbers and a moderate decrease in suckler cow numbers, which is a continuation of trends that are in place for a number of years. This is a voluntary change as farmers switch from beef into more profitable dairying. A policy to speed up the decline in suckler cow numbers and diversify the land to uses like forestry would reduce emissions further but the current targets can be delivered without it whilst allowing for moderate growth in dairy production.