Row over agriculture emissions a throwback to 2007 Fianna Fáil-Green coalition

Differences between parties over extent of cuts required by farming has delayed announcement of figures

The disagreement between the Coalition partners over the extent of reductions in agriculture greenhouse gas emissions is reminiscent of the internal rows that took place between the Green Party and rural Fianna Fáil TDs in the ill-fated government of 2007-2011.

At issue this time is the contribution agriculture is expected to make to the overall target to reduce emissions by 51 per cent by 2030, compared with 2018 levels.

Earlier this year the Climate Change Advisory Council recommended reductions for each sector. The target for agriculture was by far the lowest of each sector, with a range of 22-30 per cent, compared with about 50 per cent for transport and housing, and 70-80 per cent for electricity.

Of all the sectors, agriculture has proved to be the most divisive politically, even though the “asks” in all other sectors (particularly transport) will be difficult and unforgiving. It has been portrayed as the Greens pushing for the maximum but facing strong pushback from the other two Coalition partners, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, arguing that agriculture can sustain no more than 22 per cent.


The Cabinet was scheduled to announce the exact percentage expected of each sector before the summer recess. But that was postponed after it emerged that differences over the target for agriculture could not be resolved. Minister for Climate Change Eamon Ryan says the figure will be announced by the end of the month. He and the Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue held a long meeting on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the issue. Neither are abrasive politicians by nature and both have expressed confidence that it will be resolved.

However, there are plenty of proxies for the Ministers among their backbenchers and in outside agencies. The Irish Farmers Association acts as the Greek chorus for rural TDs in the two other parties and has been lobbying intensively in recent weeks. For the Greens, their Greek chorus has been the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, made up of environmental NGOs. The messages have been simple and polar. The IFA says nothing more than 22 per cent can be sustained. Stop Climate Chaos says nothing less than 30 per cent is acceptable.

For farmers the holy cow, literally, is sustaining livestock numbers. It is generally accepted that a cut of 22 per cent will not affect the national herd. Anything more than that will mean the prospect of reducing the herd will have to be addressed.

Successive governments, and ministers for agriculture, have argued that emission cuts can be achieved through stabilisation of the national herd.

The problem is that stabilisation is not being achieved. In the middle of the dispute the Environmental Protection Agency published its report on greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland for 2021. It made for stark reading.

Emissions rose by 4.7 per cent in 2021 compared with 2020, and are now 1.1 per cent above 2019 pre-Covid levels.

Agriculture emissions increased by 3 per cent in 2021, driven by increased fertiliser use (up 5.2 per cent) and a 2.8 per cent increase in the number of dairy cows.

It was not just agriculture. Emissions from the energy industries sector increased by 17.6 per cent in 2021 as a result of three times more coal and oil use in electricity generation.

Transport emissions increased by 6.1 per cent, showing how big the challenge to get Irish people to adopt sustainable transport is going to be.

Ireland is 18 months into its first five-year carbon budget period. Almost a quarter of its budget has been used up and that means an 8.4 per cent reduction for the next three years. That is, by any stretch of the imagination, a tall order.

Livestock numbers

The EPA reported that this was the 11th consecutive year that dairy cow numbers rose. “Milk output per cow also increased [by 2.5 per cent], therefore increased production was driven by a rise in livestock numbers in conjunction with an increase in milk yield per cow.”

It also pointed out, however, that in 2021 liming on agricultural soils increased by 49.5 per cent, a welcome measure in improving soil fertility, which should lead to a reduction in fertiliser nitrogen use.

Agriculture accounts for almost 40 per cent of all emissions and the intensification of the dairy sector has been the main contributor. The move to monocultural grass and the intensive use of fertilisers has also been bad news for biodiversity and our rivers and lakes. More than 50 per cent of Irish waterways (including the great rivers of the south) are polluted because of nitrogen and phosphate run-off from farms. In the 1980s there were more than 500 pristine rivers, now there are only 20. That’s a separate issue to climate change emissions but nobody seems to get worked up about it.

There are strong arguments on both sides of the debate. Even a 22 per cent reduction for agriculture is an onerous target. It can only be achieved with dramatic reductions in fertiliser use, by killing beef cattle at a younger age, carbon farming (getting paid to allow some of your land be used as a carbon sink), afforestation and a shift to organic farming.

The agriculture sector has argued that biogenic methane (which comes from living organisms as opposed to fossil fuels) should be treated differently as it is absorbed back into the atmosphere over time. This argument has been rejected. It has also laid great store in developments in technology and feedstuff that might suppress the emissions from ruminant cattle. But all that is unproven.

Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill is chair of the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee and feels that farmers have been unfairly targeted: “How much have transport emissions gone up and nobody is talking about that?”

Cahill is frustrated at the lack of information and details from Government departments on the specifics of what farmers will need to do to change practices in 2022-2030. “The communication is not there. There is research going on but it needs to get down to farmer level, and that is not happening.”

He said farmers have not been made aware of what they need to do to move to multi-sward grass or clover and reduce fertilisers. “There are questions about the persistence of the sward or how long it will last. It’s very good in midseason but on the shoulders of the seasons in spring and autumn, it’s maybe not so good. But the farmers are not being advised about all of this and what they need to do.”

He said that not enough research has been done to demonstrate how emissions can be cut without reducing herd numbers.

‘Credible plan’

On the other side, the pressure is mounting on Green TDs to stick as close to 30 per cent. In a statement this week Stop Climate Chaos said a 22 per cent cut in agriculture would mean the rest of society would have to cut pollution three times as fast as agriculture.

Prof Hannah Daly of UCC, an expert in sustainable energy transitions, said all other sectors would then require an average of 60-68 per cent in cuts.

In a series of tweets she said if the eight-point gap in agriculture was met by transport, it would require the equivalent of putting one in four (half a million) cars, or all vans, off the road. That would be on top of the existing target of electrifying one million cars and getting huge numbers to switch to public and sustainable transport.

She said that alternatives would be to close all cement factories, or bring another quarter of all houses to zero pollution. If the burden was applied to energy alone, every household in the country would face an extra €5,000 in costs to make up for the shortfall in agriculture.

The Green Party’s Brian Leddin is chair of the Oireachtas Climate Change Committee. He said he would be “agnostic” on a lower emissions target than 30 per cent for agriculture if there was a “credible plan” that would achieve a 51 per cent reduction overall. However, he asked if that was possible.

“If there is a much lower target in the biggest emitting sector, it will be much harder to achieve the overall target. It stands to reason that we should be seeking more and I think that it should be closer to 30 per cent,” he said.