Ireland is in Denial Over Effects of One Major Industry on Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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With Ireland likely to miss EU set targets on greenhouse gas emissions, Ruth Murphy investigates where the problem lies.

“Official greenhouse gas emission projections indicate that Ireland will fail to meet its 2020 targets by a substantial margin.” This is a quote from the 2017 periodic review by the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) but it is echoed in Ireland’s National Mitigation Plan and on the European Commission in Ireland’s website. The EU has set out environmental goals for all of its member states to reach in the coming decades. A major focus of these goals is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The EU set targets to be met by 2020, 2030, and 2050. Ireland is behind on its progress and according to the review, “If rapid economic growth continues, in the absence of further policies and measures, the overshoot on emissions could be even larger than currently projected.” The EU Commission in Ireland state that “Overall, total emissions are projected to be between 6% and 11% below 2005 levels in 2020 but the target is a 20% reduction.”

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The National Mitigation Plan attempts to shrug off some of the blame, explaining that the failure to meet the 20% target “reflects both our reduced investment capacity over the period of the economic downturn, as well as the fact that the target itself was misinformed and not consistent with what was achievable on an EU wide cost-effective basis.” It is interesting that the plan would blame the recession when during this time people were driving and flying less in order to keep their costs low.

Three major industries combine to make up 72.5% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the European Commission in Ireland.

Ireland’s failure to reach its 2020 goals will have a knock-on effect on the goals for 2030 and 2050. Three major industries combine to make up 72.5% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to the European Commission in Ireland. These are energy, transport, and agriculture, but not in that order.

The European Commission in Ireland’s website explains that Ireland is on track to meet the EU 2020 target for energy efficiency and according to the National Mitigation Plan, in 2015 renewable energy made up 25.3% of Ireland’s electricity generation.

In the transport sector, which produces slightly more greenhouse gas emissions, the Irish government is offering incentives to buy electric cars. The plan states that “a full electrification of the car fleet could represent a feasible option for Ireland.” Also, public transport in Dublin is being expanded with luas and dart extensions and the proposed Metro North Link between the city centre, Swords, and the airport which is planned for 2025/2026.

“Agriculture remains the single largest contributor to Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions at 33.1% of the total.”

While some progress is being made in the areas of energy and transport it is in agriculture where Ireland falls very short of the mark. According to the European Commission in Ireland “Agriculture remains the single largest contributor to Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions at 33.1% of the total.” That is over 10% more than any other sector. Most Irish people are not aware of the negative effects our agriculture is having on the planet. We are taught that turning off our lights, recycling, and getting solar panels will fix the issue. All the while, the National Mitigation Plan states that “Emissions in the agriculture sector are projected to increase by 5% in the period 2015 to 2020.” With this sector already producing the most greenhouse gases our government and the EU should be rushing to solve the problem. It may seem that instead it is being actively avoided. This is most evident in the National Mitigation Plan.

Ireland’s National Mitigation Plan outlines that “Methane is the most significant greenhouse gas emitted from agricultural activity in Ireland, accounting for 64.5% of total agricultural emissions.” Cattle produce the most methane and “beef and milk production currently account for 68% of agricultural output at producer prices.” Methane is released by cattle and sheep through flatulence. While methane stays in the atmosphere for a shorter amount of time it is much worse for the planet than carbon dioxide. This means that when talking about emissions from this sector we should not only consider the amount but also the type of gas produced. Nitrous Oxide also makes up a large amount of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and it is “associated with fertiliser use, manure management and land management,” according to the CCAC periodic review. It is also much worse for the planet than carbon dioxide. The review also states that “In 2015, greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector in Ireland were 19.8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent.”

The plan describes Irish agriculture as having a “low environmental footprint.”

The National Mitigation Plan notes “that many of the pledges submitted in advance of the Paris Agreement include agriculture and land management actions, further emphasising the important role agriculture and land use can make in achieving these [climate change] goals.” This sentence might lead one to believe that the Irish government might wish to tackle this issue and not skirt around it. The plan, like EU reports on the issue, recalls that the world population is increasing rapidly and suggests that “Ireland can play its part in meeting the increasing global food demand while having regard to Ireland’s climate obligations.” This could be used as an excuse to breed more cattle when it would be best for the planet if we bred fewer. The plan goes on to make a misleading statement: “Our capacity to grow grass… allows for the production of a product that is independently recognised as being both environmentally and resource efficient.” This might make the reader believe that agriculture is having a positive effect on the environment. The plan then describes Irish agriculture as having a “low environmental footprint” which appears to be a lie based on the level of greenhouse gas emissions it produces. This plan, as opposed to EU publications on the issue, appears to be in denial that agriculture has a negative effect on the planet though it features the statistics to defend this fact.

Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council’s periodic review features more urgency in its tone and may not agree entirely with the plan’s chapter on agriculture which is the shortest and the last. “The Council highlights the urgent need to address key information and analysis gaps that exist for agriculture and land-use sector as well as the need to develop a national land use strategy to 2050.”

The European Commission in Ireland poses a suggestion that is not mentioned in either Ireland’s National Mitigation Plan or its Climate Change Advisory Council’s periodic review: “Changes towards a more healthy diet with more vegetables and less meat can also reduce emissions.” The National Mitigation Plan does not mention the idea of meeting global food demands with food that is not meat.

The Irish government is taking steps to combat climate change, but it is not properly facing the issue of the country’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions. Different farming methods and a reduction in cattle numbers could help Ireland meet the EU targets it is clearly failing to reach. With agriculture being such a large industry the Irish government may be nervous about losing votes if it attempts to alter it in any way, but the sheer size of the industry means the potential for great change.

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