An Taisce calls on Teagasc to lead Irish Agriculture in effective action to tackle climate change

2nd November 2017
Press Release

Agriculture is a significant contributor to Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions and Teagasc has stated that climate targets are “a challenge to Irish agriculture”.

Phil Kearney, Chair of An Taisce’s Climate Change Committee stated “Despite this acknowledgment by Teagasc, An Taisce is concerned that they are primarily concerned with defending the Government endorsed, agri-food industry policy of increasingly high levels of ruminant-based agriculture”.

Kearney continued “An Taisce believes that Teagasc should support Irish agriculture to flourish in the future. They should look at the opportunities to change EU and Irish policy supports so that farmers can produce higher value products and steadily adopt non-ruminant and crop-based agriculture. This will increase their profits, enhance food security (nationally and internationally) and significantly reduce climate impacts both here in Ireland and on those most vulnerable around the world.

Kearney concluded “Continuing the current focus on expanding and defending a high greenhouse gas, high input, ruminant-dominated system (with very low efficiency in land-use, in producing protein and in net nutritional output) endangers exploration of alternative climate-impact and climate-regulation proof opportunities for Ireland’s farmers.

Given the significant contribution of Irish agriculture in greenhouse gas emissions, An Taisce believes that the scale, complexity and urgency relating to climate change and agriculture must be better communicated.

Teagasc, the statutory public body with responsibility for research and development, training and advisory services in the agri-food sector, is a key authority with responsibility to communicate the contribution of Irish agriculture to climate change.

However, An Taisce is concerned that Teagasc may be perceived as being primarily focused on defending business-as-usual, intrinsically GHG-intensive, ruminant-based production for beef and dairy exports. An Taisce believes they should be providing properly independent, science-based input to inform climate policy on behalf of the Irish public (present and future).

An Taisce have recently raised a number of critical issues with Teagasc, which are detailed below.

Scale
Increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere due to human activity are resulting in progressively more dangerous climate change.

Agriculture accounts for one-third of our national greenhouse gas emissions. The main greenhouse gases that are emitted from agriculture are methane from livestock production and manure, and nitrous oxide from fertiliser and animal deposition.

Using the most recent data regarding milk production from the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Central Statistics Office (CSO), An Taisce project that total cattle methane emissions in 2016 may well exceed 1990 emissions due to the rapid increase in dairy production and dairy cattle numbers. Dairy methane emissions in 2015 have already exceeded 1990 and are continuing to increase, making meeting any reduction targets far more difficult to achieve.

Complexity
The three main greenhouse gases; carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane have different abilities to trap heat. Global Warming Potential (GWP) is used to compare greenhouse gases. It measures the ability of 1 kg of each gas to trap heat over a 100-year time horizon. Currently, the GWP which is used in the Paris Agreement indicate that methane has 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, while nitrous oxide has 298 times the warming potential.

However, the research that these Global Warming Potentials are based on is almost twenty years old[1]. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has revised the GWP for methane to 28 [2]. Further recent research has indicated that GWP for methane should increase from 28 to 32 [3].

In terms of emissions from Irish agriculture, this increase of the GWP of methane to 32 is the equivalent of adding 50% more cars to our roads[4]. This means that urgent action is required to reducing absolute emissions from agriculture. However, this critically important scientific context is missing from the current independent Teagasc advice on climate action.

The length of time that the three main greenhouse gases; carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane, remain in the atmosphere differs. Carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for several centuries. Nitrous oxide has an approximate atmospheric lifetime of 114 years, and methane has an approximate lifetime of 12 years.

As methane has a shorter lifetime compared with other greenhouse gases, it is often suggested that it has less of an impact, which is very misleading. The warming effect of methane peaks at 12 years, and has a continuing effect for at least 50 years thereafter.

Urgency
According to modelling undertaken by Teagasc, agricultural emissions are projected to increase further in the short term[5]. Teagasc has outlined four strategies to reduce agricultural emissions:

  1. stabilise GHG emissions, particularly methane, by enhanced efficiency measures,
  2. further reduce emissions, particularly nitrous oxide,
  3. offset GHG emissions with carbon sequestration from afforestation and agricultural land management and
  4. displace fossil fuel emissions with wood fuel and biogas.

In terms of efficiency, Teagasc has emphasised that producing food with fewer inputs will result in reduced emissions to the atmosphere. The measures to improve efficiency include breeding programmes for the national beef and dairy herds and initiatives like the Teagasc/Bord Bia Farm Carbon Navigator.

The problem with reported improvements in efficiency based on carbon footprints is that they are measured on a per litre of milk or per kg of beef basis. If the units produced per year increases, then any efficiency gain can easily be cancelled out by the actual increase in the total emissions from dairy and beef.

The relevant measure for overall greenhouse gas “efficiency” in Irish agriculture should be the aggregate carbon footprint of all milk and beef produced in Ireland in a year, expressed in terms of nutrition rather than the specific quantity of those products.

Initiatives such as the Carbon Navigator, are all potential ways of saving money, but that saving can easily be then spent on more cattle and increasing production that will increase total, aggregate emissions. The savings may also be spent in any other non-agricultural sector, with the effect of increasing total emissions.

Reductions in nitrous oxide emissions to date have largely been driven by EU rules to restrict overuse of fertiliser. But due to Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 policies, fertiliser use in Ireland is increasing and liming is also likely to increase, both once again raising emissions of greenhouse gases.

ENDS

Phil Kearney, Chair An Taisce Climate Change Committee Tel: +353 86 265 9833
Charles Stanley-Smith, Communications, An Taisce. Tel: +353 87 241 1995
email: publicaffairs@antaisce.org
An Taisce The National Trust for Ireland
www.antaisce.org

Notes

  1. Myhre, G., E. Highwood, K. Shine, and F. Stordal (1998), New estimates of radiative forcing due to well mixed greenhouse gases, Geophys. Res. Lett., 25 (14), 2715–2718, doi:10.1029/98GL01908
  2. Table 8.7 in IPCC (2013) AR5 WG1 Ch. 8 Anthropogenic and Natural Radiative Forcing
  3. Etminan, M., G. Myhre, E. J. Highwood, and K. P. Shine. “Radiative Forcing of Carbon Dioxide, Methane, and Nitrous Oxide: A Significant Revision of the Methane Radiative Forcing.” Geophysical Research Letters (2016): http://tinyurl.com/gl4tvuk
  4. Methane emissions from agriculture is equal to 0.475 Mt (Megatonne) CH4. GWP @ 25 = 11.9 Mt CO2e or carbon dioxide equivalent. GWP @ 32 = 15.2 Mt CO2e. This results in an increase of 3.3 MtCO2e. Currently the emissions from passenger cars is approximately 7Mt CO2.
  5. https://www.fapri.missouri.edu/about-fapri/history/fapri-ireland-partnership/

About An Taisce

An Taisce is a charity that works to preserve and protect Ireland's natural and built heritage. We are an independent charitable voice for the environment and for heritage issues. We are not a government body, semi-state or agency. Founded in 1948, we are one of Ireland’s oldest and largest environmental organisations.