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Matt O'Keeffe

Farmers being sold short

‘Know your number’ is the new catchphrase from Teagasc, and a very important number it may well become for Irish farmers.

The development of individual calculations allowing farmers to determine their carbon reductions from a series of actions based on the third iteration of the Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC) has benefits, as well as potential pitfalls. Ultimately, if the sums do not add up to major emissions reductions, the protective cover of average reductions across all farms may not suffice. While the efforts of Teagasc to highlight emissions reductions on individual farms and encourage farmers that their actions are delivering results are praiseworthy, there is also the potential to target shortcomings on farms that may, ultimately, impact their economic wellbeing. We are all in favour of inducements to curtail carbon outputs, but the contra entry may well be that farmers will be penalised if they do not reach certain targets. That is not to defend any so-called laggards. It is merely pointing out the potential for ‘knowing your number’ becoming a double-edged sword over time. 

Missing elements

There are critical elements missing from any calculation of a farm’s contributions to mitigating climate change. For example, the installation of a range of renewable energy production technologies on farms will not be attributable to any overall emissions reductions achievements by the farm sector. Solar panels on farm roofs, for instance, do not contribute to a farm’s number; neither would a solar farm. Biomethane digesters are another example. Whether a farmer establishes one on his own farm or is a raw material supplier to a larger facility, none of that is counted as a contribution to a farm's emissions reduction figures. Wind turbines, similarly, have no beneficial impact on the number. Forestry is another enterprise that should reduce the number, but that won’t count towards it, either. Farm-based renewable energy production will be claimed as a win for the energy sector. Forestry is assigned to the Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF). Presumably, if a farmer electrifies part of his farm vehicle fleet, that too, will be a win for the transport sector or the energy sector, or any sector other than agriculture. 

Balancing the carbon books

Are farmers being short-changed by this discretionary assignment of emissions-balancing actions? It is certainly plausible to argue that actions taken by a particular sector should be credited to that sector, right down to the number calculated to reflect actions taken on individual farms to reduce CO2 emissions or counterbalance them. It is not clear whether the carbon storage capacities of farms will be credited in any way towards a farm’s progress towards net zero carbon. It seems unlikely. The value of carbon sequestered in soils and hedgerows is increasingly recognised and a market for carbon credits may be in its infancy. If sequestered carbon is saleable, should it be available for balancing farm carbon accounts? Ultimately, the fact that those credits would not appear to be available to offset farm-based emissions may become problematic for individual farms. The concept of zero carbon in this jurisdiction has not gained enough traction. The idea is straightforward and reasonable. No matter what actions a food producer takes, he/she will cause carbon emissions. That is a natural consequence of food production of any kind. Balancing the carbon books entirely is not possible without the benefit of at least some of the actions mentioned above. Renewable energy production should reduce the carbon number on a farm. Ditto wind energy or gas production. By not challenging the current carbon allocation policies, we are doing ourselves a grave disservice.