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Matt O'Keeffe

Eating the emissions elephant requires imagination

The ACRES programme seems to have struck a chord with thousands of farmers.

The Agri-Climate Rural Environment Scheme, to give it a full title, was developed with the express purpose of addressing biodiversity decline on Irish farms. More accurately, it might equally have been described as a strategy to improve biodiversity, as many farms retain high levels of biodiversity. That would only be nit-picking with a scheme that is sufficiently financed to deliver a worthwhile income support to thousands of farmers at the same time as engaging them in practical biodiversity improvements. Such is the extent to which ACRES Tranche 2 has caught the attention of farmers, that the fund provided may prove inadequate to meet the entry demands being made on it. Unless funding increases, the current plan to deal with an over-subscription to ACRES involves a ranking and selection process based on prioritising the environmental impact of measures proposed in farmer applications. To describe the process as a ‘cull’ would be offensive. But could any screening process that eliminates applications that meet the base criteria be potentially deemed discriminatory?
Given the carbon tax stream coming through annually, and increasing with each passing year, there is a reasonable case to be made for directing more of the revenue to ACRES. The biodiversity and general environmental benefits accruing from ACRES are obvious and measurable. It is, after all, described as a results-based scheme. 

ACRES is just one of a range of relatively small-scale on-farm strategies that have the potential to bring about large-scale changes in the management of our countryside and farms. We have an elephant to eat in terms of meeting our climate-change mitigation obligations. While big, individual projects – biomethane digestion plants, solar and wind farms spring to mind – have roles to play in meeting ambitious targets, so too have small, incremental actions on farms around the country. Whether it is converting to protected urea use, seeding clover-rich swards, planting hedgerows or raising the genetics of a livestock herd, the results are positive and appreciable. However small the bites may be, they are a lot more digestible than coercing farmers into reducing livestock numbers and, consequently, diminishing their economic sustainability.
Large-scale afforestation is promoted as another panacea to combat climate change and accelerate our progress towards a net-zero carbon economy. The new forestry programme may deliver a substantial improvement on current derisory planting levels. However, it is unlikely to reach the 20,000-hectares-per-annum outcomes being advocated as necessary to make up for the low planting levels of recent years. There is one aspect of the forestry programme, that has potential to deliver large-scale outcomes from a series of bite-sized measures. The Native Tree Area Scheme allows for the planting of small areas with minimal planning requirements. Would it be a stretch to suggest that this should be encouraged across our 120,000 farms? There are few farms that do not have an area more suited to trees than conventional agricultural practices, some more than others. Riparian areas as well as inconvenient field corners are obvious candidates for afforestation with native species without any impact on the economic sustainability of a farm, especially as there are supports for establishment and maintenance for many years of growth. Even on a simple mathematical basis, one hectare per farm of trees, or pro rata based on farm size, would deliver an overnight 14.5 times multiple of the 8,000 hectares what we are hoping to plant annually. The best way to eat an elephant is still one bite at a time.