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The Climate Action Plan and Agriculture

24 June 2019
Type Media Article

Professor Frank O’Mara, Director of Research, Teagasc

We’ve been hearing for years that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have to be cut, so what is all the fuss about in recent days?  Well, the government has published a new Climate Action Plan to tackle Ireland’s rising emissions and to comply with our international obligations.  For the first time, the Plan includes target emission cuts for all sectors, including agriculture.  We are currently not doing well with regard to meeting national targets:  the target for the period up to 2020 (20% below 2005 levels) will not be met, without buying emission credits at significant cost to the taxpayer (€86.6 million spent to date in buying credits and more to follow in the next year).  The target for the following decade is to reduce emissions further (30% below 2005 by 2030) and as our emissions are rising rather than falling, there is the potential for a substantial bill post 2020. In addition, consumers and food retailers are demanding cuts in carbon emissions from food production.  Thus the need for action.

So what are the targets for agriculture in the new Plan?  Emissions of GHG were 18.7 million tonnes (mt) in 2005, which is the base year.  More recent figures for 2017 show emissions at 20.2mt and Teagasc projections for 2030 suggest a figure of 21mt, which could be higher or lower, depending on the size of the national bovine herd.  One could ask why are agricultural emissions rising given that our farming systems are very sustainable, mainly based on grazed grass, which gives milk and meat with a low carbon footprint (in one important EU study, we had the joint lowest carbon footprint for our milk).  Well the reason is a bigger cattle herd since the end of milk quotas, as our emissions are very closely related to the size of the national herd.  The target for agriculture in the new plan is to 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). 

So will we have to cut the national herd to reach our emission reduction targets?  The answer is no, as long as we do other things to reduce emissions.  The target set for agriculture is very challenging, but Teagasc has been researching methods to reduce emissions and collaborating with the best scientists in our universities and internationally and there are now several practical solutions available.  These have all been published in a technical paper call the Teagasc Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC), which is not light bedtime reading, but does set out 26 actions that farmers can do across agricultural production, carbon abatement from land use such as forestry and soil management, and providing renewable alternative to fossil fuels.  The main farming measures can be boiled down to

  • continued good efficient farming (improving EBI and beef genetic merit, better grassland utilisation and incorporation of clover into grassland, getting soil pH right, etc),
  • switching to a form of urea fertiliser, protected urea, which significantly cuts down emissions of nitrous oxide compared to CAN, and
  • spreading as much slurry as possible in the springtime, and using a low emissions way of spreading such as the trailing shoe or trailing hose.

In the case of both protected urea and low emissions slurry spreading, greater value is got from the fertiliser or manure as less of the nitrogen is lost up into the atmosphere and therefore fertiliser usage and bills can be cut.  Importantly, forestry and the way we manage our peat soils are making a major contribution by sequestering carbon, with up to 2.6 mt per year allowed to be counted up to 2030.  Both can be sensitive issues which need to be handled correctly, but undoubtedly they are important in this debate.  All farmers can also make a contribution through the planting of hedgerows and native woodlands. Another area where farmers can make a major contribution is through provision of bio or renewable energy, though this has been a slow starter to date. 

So can we reach the target?  It is ambitious and change is often slow and difficult to achieve, but the targets will have to be achieved.  In agriculture, a whole of sector response will be necessary and policy will need to support change.  The new CAP will have greater targeting of resources (40%) to climate friendly practices.  Teagasc will initiate a major intensive advisory campaign around implementation of the measures in the MACC and will work closely with farmers and all sections of the industry, Bord Bia and the Department in this endeavour.  The sooner the changes are made, the better, as the emissions reduction is in place for a longer period and the savings have longer to add up.  In addition, we will continue our research effort to find new practical solutions that are compatible with good farming.  Given that we are part of a global food system supplying food to a growing population, it is vital that we find ways to grow food production and reduce emissions. 

The main GHG coming from agriculture are:

Methane belched by cattle and sheep as they digest feed in the rumen.

Nitrogen containing fertilisers such as CAN and urea release some nitrous oxide after application.

Animal faeces and especially urine deposited on pastures during grazing release some nitrous oxide.

Manures like slurry release methane and nitrous oxide during storage and land spreading

Diesel for agricultural machinery emits carbon dioxide as does the generation of electricity used on farms.