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Matt O'Keeffe

Reducing gaseous emissions: What will it achieve?

Reducing the contribution of gaseous emissions to climate change is now a widely adopted 21st-century imperative. Clearly, Ireland must play its due role in addressing this challenge.

However, the practical benefits, in terms of global impact, are clearly minimal, given our geographical size and population, as well as the relatively small scale of the Irish economy, including agriculture. 

Despite the contention that our livestock are a real and present danger to humanity’s wellbeing, the elimination of our entire cattle herd would be irrelevant to the mitigation of climate-change vectors. Why then the increasing preoccupation with reducing emissions from Irish agriculture, apart from complying with EU commitments? Perhaps realism has been overwhelmed by idealism.

Nevertheless, various measures are being advanced to reduce gaseous emissions from Irish agriculture. Increasingly stringent measures, such as reducing cattle numbers and re-wetting farmland, are likely to be adopted in response to the concerns regarding climate change. Even at this stage, there should be an objective reflection on both the direction and speed of movement, as well as on the ultimate aims and outcomes gathering momentum towards reducing Irish food production. 

There is an immediate requirement, even at this late juncture, for an objective assessment of the economic and social implications of specific environmental and climate-change mitigation measures. Such a cost-benefit analysis could be undertaken relatively quickly. It would provide a strategic basis for prioritising remedial actions and would also facilitate better-informed public deliberations on upcoming measures, in place of the prevailing circular arguments. Why this strategy has not already been undertaken is problematic, if not altogether surprising.

Tracking improvements in gaseous emissions over time is becoming increasingly essential. This requires a baseline measurement across Irish farms. This could be done by incorporating the dimension of gaseous emissions into Teagasc’s Farm Management Survey. Determination of the levels of emissions from a randomised subset of farms covered by the survey would provide an ongoing credible system for assessing the relative contributions of individual mitigation measures introduced to alleviate gaseous emissions from Irish agriculture. Teagasc’s Signpost Programme and the series of towers being established to measure CO2 uptake and output across grassland and crops, should provide must needed data to contribute to an objective cost-benefit analysis. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that a considered approach is being adopted by regulators and political leaders. Knee-jerk reactions and quick fixes are rarely of lasting value. Downstream and upstream economic impacts should be measured before crude rewetting and livestock-reduction strategies are implemented. 

Despite the opinions of a few often-quoted environmental commentators, Irish agriculture is and should continue to be a valuable economic driver for rural Ireland and beyond. Simplistic comparisons to other sectors using spurious GDP figures do not stand up to close scrutiny. Even the Central Statistics Office has come to realise that a more nuanced approach is required to differentiate creative global corporate bookkeeping from actual physical indigenous output. The economic and employment value of Irish food production should not be jeopardised before an intense analysis of the long-term impacts of government and EU policies is completed. 

Of course, individual farmers have the right to voluntarily adopt whatever proposals are placed in front of them. There should be no argument there. What must be considered, in tandem, are the wider effects of these proposals, if implemented, on our entire agri-food sector. It is unacceptable that we have no analysis of these wider implications.