Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Agriculture and Climate Change: A Letter to the Editor

[ The following unpublished letter to the Editor of the Irish Times was sent on 12 July 2015. ]

Sir, – I take issue with Matt O’Keefe on agriculture and climate change (Letters, July 11th).  Without attribution or reference, he asserts that, “Our contribution to climate change mitigation is already significant and significantly ahead of many of our peers”.  To the contrary though, according to the 2015 Emission Projections from the Environmental Protection Agency, total emissions from cattle-dominated Irish agriculture are increasing, and, based on figures provided by Teagasc to the EPA, emissions will at best ‘flat-line’ to 2035, and probably likewise to 2050.

Increasing, or even ‘flat-lining’, emissions is not mitigation; as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states, sustained and substantial decreases in greenhouse gas flows will be required to limit climate change. As Mr. O’Keefe seems to agree, agriculture must play its part.  Confusingly though, the Department of Agriculture, Teagasc, Bord Bia and agri-businesses repeatedly point to ‘efficiency’, the emissions rate per kilo of beef or litre of milk, as a key measure for climate action.  This is deeply misleading.

Agricultural emissions are in fact, of course, the product of this 'efficiency rate' and total output; and as long as output growth matches (or exceeds) improvements in efficiency, then there is no net mitigation whatsoever.  ‘Total emissions from Irish agriculture’ is the only “footprint” that matters in trapping more reflected solar energy. By this measure, the EPA Projections clearly show that under current policies no net mitigation at all is being achieved, and livestock farming under planned policy will achieve none either.

If the much-vaunted ‘climate efficiency’ of Irish cattle is to be realised, or ‘emissions leakage’ avoided, agricultural emissions, both imports and exports, have to be costed within a capped emissions budget (national or international) so that polluters pay for emissions and fund a low carbon transition. Otherwise ‘efficiency’ and ‘flatlining’ are just Orwellian doublespeak words being used as a cover for inaction. Maintaining or increasing livestock production (that will thereby limit or decrease global crop production) is not ‘climate smart’.

There is indeed an inherent tension between the climate change challenge and global food security. Unfortunately, the inconvenient biological fact – for milk drinkers like myself included – is that cattle-based farming is high emissions agriculture that necessarily exacerbates global climate risks. The resolution – the only honest one – is to admit the pollution damage of ruminant production and support our cattle-farmers and rural communities in a rapid transition to more resilient land use through forestry, renewable energy and low carbon agriculture.

Political failure in Ireland’s climate planning means that, as currently forecast, agriculture will take nearly the whole pie of national emissions by 2050 with nothing left for anything else. For all our futures and for future generations, we have to set a different course to a near-zero carbon future, starting now.  We are not doing it. We still can – but the window for effective action is rapidly closing.
– Yours, etc,

Researcher, An Taisce - Climate Change Committee
Tailors’ Hall, Back Lane, Dublin 8