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Opinion: Climate Action Bill will cherry-pick the science and outsource the problem

In this article, Aidan Hough, BSc, expresses his concerns regarding the Climate Action Bill currently before the Dáíl.

“No country has ever set such an ambitious target,” said Green Party leader Eamon Ryan as he announced the new climate action bill.

He certainly means business. Emissions must decline by more than half by 2030 and drop to net-zero by 2050. But, unlike many countries, including New Zealand, few exceptions have been made for agriculture.

These targets pose challenges for all sectors, but the technology exists for the complete decarbonisation of our energy and transport systems. However, animal agriculture only has low carbon alternatives.

Ireland’s grassland farmers are world leaders in this regard. Restricting the Irish beef and dairy industries will only offshore production to less carbon-efficient systems abroad, increasing global emissions.

Ireland’s Climate Action Bill will be unique only in that it will bring about an increase in global agriculture emissions while imperilling the livelihoods of our rural communities. Against these hard facts, Ryan’s boasts ring hollow. Rural Ireland holds its breath.

Irish dairy expansion has not come at the expense of forests

Scathing in its criticism of a similar policy from the European commission was an article published in the eminent science journal Nature. Europe’s “green deal”, according to the study amounts to an “outsourcing” by the EU of emissions and pollution to developing countries.

The study finds that Europe should increase domestic food production from its more carbon-efficient systems. This would reduce deforestation rates in the tropics, which is mainly caused by the creation of new farming areas.

Thankfully, recent Irish dairy expansion has not come at the expense of forests or wild areas but by converting commercial beef farms and increasing intensity on existing dairy farms.

As the world’s population continues to grow, there are few signs of a decline in the growing demand for animal protein.

All the evidence suggests that reversing an expansionist approach here will drive production to areas of the world with poorer regulatory regimes, less carbon-efficient systems and lots of virgin forest ready for clearing.

False narratives and fake news prevail and, unfortunately, have made their way into the climate bill. You will not hear it on Twitter or over the airwaves, but Irish dairy farmers are doing a lot more to lower global emissions than many of their keyboard warrior critics.

Carbon intensity

In recent years, the carbon intensity of Irish dairy and beef production systems has continued to decline from a lower base than its peers.

A UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report calculated the average emissions intensity of 1L of milk globally at 2.5kg carbon dioxide equivalent (C02e). Donal O’Brien of Teagasc has put this figure at just 1.2kg CO2e for Irish dairy.

Some farms reduced this figure to as low as 0.6 kg CO2e per Litre. These figures do not include on-farm sequestration by soil or hedgerows.

In fact, Dr Laurance Shalloo has found that Irish dairy expansion since 2016 has reduced global dairy emissions by four million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) by displacing more polluting products from global dairy markets.

Emissions targets for all sectors of the economy were set for 2020 and were met by few. Perhaps there is a feeling that this bill will be more of the same. It will not. Legally binding five-year carbon budgets will start from 2021, with 2018 as a reference year. These will not be targets so much as legal limits, enshrined in law, and enforced by the judiciary.

The people of the midlands do not need reminding; it was the courts that closed the Bord na Mona plants in Shannonbridge and Lanesboro.

Just transition 

With the fall of the gavel, gone was the promise of a decade long, just transition. Politicians said their hands were tied, and the curtains closed on an industry that was once the region’s beating heart.

An Taisce has already warned dairy farmers to cease investment in their businesses. Their planning and policy officer has stated publicly that dairy expansion “may face a similar prospect” to the now dormant peat industry.

An Taisce will object to further expansion on farms through planning objections and, if necessary, the courts. They will use taxpayer’s money to do so, and this legislation will aid them greatly.

Thankfully, the closure of our bogs at least had the intended effect of reducing global emissions. Unfortunately, forcing a decline in the national herd will only offshore and likely increase them.

Organic farming requires more subsidies to remain profitable

No doubt farmers will also be promised a “just transition”, offered short-term cash payments or told to go organic, reassured that alternative land uses will be just as profitable. Unfortunately for the taxpayer, organic farming requires more, not less, subsidies to remain profitable.

The market for such products is fickle, and in some sectors like sheep, existing supply already outstrips demand.

As a result, 70% of certified organic sheep, for instance, is sold as conventional due to limited consumer demand.

The extra cost of organics ensures it is a luxury only for those that can afford it. The reduced production per hectare (at least 30%) is yet another driver of deforestation abroad.

The resultant increase in the cost of all food, due to reduced supply is yet another burden to be borne by the poorest among us.

Just as the fashion industry is more than happy to use standards abroad that would be unpalatable at home, the climate bills architects are quite willing to outsource deforestation and emissions far enough away that they don’t have to look.

Sufficient reductions may yet be achieved through promising additive technology currently in the pipeline but not yet on the market. Pressure may yet allow exceptions for agriculture, as PM Jacinta Ardern has provided for in New Zealand. However, we can only work with what we have.

Reduction in national herd

As it stands, the bill’s targets will not be met without a reduction in the national herd. This is the stated aim of several TDs, and there is many a trojan horse to that effect poorly concealed within the bill.

Any reduction in Europe’s most carbon-efficient dairy and beef systems will leave a gap in the market. Just as an increase in Ireland’s dairy output decreased global emissions, a decline in production would only serve to increase emissions.

Ireland’s seasonal grass-based beef and dairy production systems are among the most carbon-efficient on the planet. Europe’s food production regulations and environmental protections are the toughest in the world.

They are combined with strict enforcement mechanisms and policed by an army of inspectors from a multitude of state agencies.

Outsourcing our food production to countries over which we have no oversight is not just illogical and naïve; it is dangerous. Their poorer food standards pose a risk to the health of consumers. Their rising emissions profile an existential threat to the planet.

The greatest test of our generation

Climate change is real, manmade, and an immediate threat to our way of life. Meeting the challenge of its mitigation will be the greatest test of our generation. Farmers can do a lot more, and they must.

However, our government appears set on a path that will dramatically reduce food production from the most carbon-efficient European farms, driving global food production to more polluting systems abroad.

This is contrary to logic, reason, and science. Yet, Ryan clings to his plan with the zeal of an idealogue. This bill is no solution at all.

Aidan Hough is a dairy farmer from North Tipperary. He holds a BSc in Biological Sciences with chemistry from the University of Limerick. You can follow Aidan on Twitter here.

For more Climate Action Bill-related content, see here.

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