And justice for all
The agricultural sector is a very important indigenous industry, providing roughly 173,000 Irish jobs. This made up approximately 7% of the pre-Covid Irish labour force. A 2020 Bord Bia study found that the Irish agri-food and drink exports was worth approximately €13 billion in 2019, approximately 10% of Irish exports. At the same time, agricultural activities account for 35% of Ireland’s annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). GHGs are the highest share of emissions from agriculture across European states. Given Ireland’s unique emission profile and strong reliance on agriculture, the sector expects to be hit hard by any climate related measures.
As a result, the sector has taken a keen interest in the “just transition” and “climate justice” elements of the proposed legislation. Climate justice requires that climate measures “in so far as is practicable to do so … endeavour to share the burdens and benefits arising from climate change”. Meanwhile, just transition requires that the government “endeavours, in so far as is practicable, to maximise employment opportunities and support persons and communities that may be negatively affected by the transition”.
The repeated qualification of statutory obligations by “in so far as is practicable” makes it very difficult for affected parties, like farmers, to assess the likely impact of the Bill and to formulate a coherent challenge.
The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) has expressed the view that the Bill is being rushed through the legislative process and has not received proper scrutiny. This is backed up by the fact that none of the amendments proposed by opposition parties have been adopted. When reviewing the 239 proposed amendments, Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications Eamonn Ryan noted that it is not a Bill that is going to be easily amended. The Minister added that the only amendments he was likely to accept were his own.
A level ploughing field?
During the legislative process, the government rejected an amendment that would involve treating biogenic methane, which is produced by agriculture and particularly beef farming, differently from other methane emissions. Deputy Denis Naughten noted that there appears to be a movement to drive down livestock numbers and to move the use of agricultural land towards crop production. This process is more methane friendly. However, he pointed out the concerns raised by the agricultural sector on this point. He stated that there is much marginal land in Ireland that is not suitable for crop production and that beef farming is the only commercially viable use for it. Furthermore, during Oireachtas debates, the point was raised that methane emissions should be measured on a European level. This is because the majority of agri-food produced in Ireland is exported, and so emissions should be reflected in the consuming country rather than in the producing country.
Another concern of farmers is whether the mechanics of the Bill properly reflect their true carbon footprint. In an open letter to the Minister, one farmer highlighted the fact that 717 tons of carbon were produced on his farm according to a Bord Bia audit for 2020. However the grassland and forestry on the farm removed approximately 1026 tons of carbon from the atmosphere, resulting in a net sequestration of 309 tons. In countries like France and New Zealand, the carbon sequestered by a farm is deducted to give a net carbon footprint. Under the Bill however, it is only the carbon produced that counts in calculating carbon footprints.
It was further pointed out that if the government intends that farmers are to use agricultural land as carbon sinks by planting trees – a practice known as “agroforestry” – it will be important to keep farmers onside. The potential for agroforestry to help Ireland achieve its climate targets, while at the same time providing a more sustainable livelihood for farmers, should not be underestimated. As well as carbon sequestration, forestry also helps with protection of water quality and biodiversity enhancement.
The wider view
The foregoing needs to be considered in the context of the enormous estimated cost of climate change mitigation measures.
Looking to the future, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently estimate that Ireland will need to invest €20 billion each year up until 2030 to achieve the emission reduction targets set by the government. This would amount to approximately 5% of the current GDP.
This is a colossal investment, and relates to projected sectoral investment needs, climate-related infrastructure, and other mitigation measures. However, the IMF notes that while investment in climate-sensitive infrastructure is costly, it carries significant long-term benefits like lowering energy costs in relation to energy-efficient buildings.
The scale of this projected investment over the coming decade puts into perspective the size of the transitioning task that confronts Ireland, and suggests that placating the agricultural sector will be but one of many obstacles that needs to be overcome.
The agricultural sector is big business in Ireland. However, it is dwarfed by estimates of the potential price tag that accompanies the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2021 and the measures that will be deployed to achieve its goals. The policies that underpin the legislation have thrown the sustainability of the agricultural sector into sharp focus, and yet have highlighted the distinctly fuzzy elements of the current draft Bill. Should the legislation pass in its current form, we face an interesting decade ahead.
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