Agri emissions plan a roadmap to nowhere

In the absence of action, the next best thing is to look busy, and Ireland’s agri-industrial sector and its many boosters in politics and the civil and public service have elevated this frenzy of inaction to something of a performance art. This reached new levels of theatre with the publication earlier this month of the latest report to engage in the pretence that it is possible to rein in agri emissions while expanding the ruminant herd, including the most emissions-intensive of ruminants – dairy cows. My report below was published in the Business Post.

IF THE ISSUES at stake were not so serious, it would be almost enjoyable watching politicians, department officials and agri industry lobbyists attempting to talk up the publication this week of the government’s woeful ‘Ag Climatise’ Roadmap.

The agri sector is in fact awash with roadmaps. Barely two weeks ago, Teagasc, the state agricultural research authority, published its ‘2027 sectoral roadmap’ for the dairy sector. Too many roadmaps can, it seem, leave you driving around in circles.

Perhaps in describing its report as a roadmap ‘towards climate neutrality’, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was subtly telegraphing a plan that would appear to be constantly in motion, while never actually arriving at any destination.

The sense of temporal vagueness is also reflected in the foreword by Minister Charlie McConologue, who talks about “the medium to longer term” and things having to “evolve over time”.

It is only against this background of soothing waffle can the true intent of this latest report be fully understood. This dazzling yet elusive future where all the problems of the industry will merge and vanish into a policy singularity is caught later in the report, when it breathlessly explains how advances in science, tech and innovations are “merging the physical, digital and biological worlds”.

No amount of verbiage can disguise the sheer vacuity of this report, which could be summed up with the phrase: we’ve tried nothing, and now we’re all out of ideas. Yet the central problem – spiralling agri sector emissions and pollution largely fuelled by rapid expansion of dairying – is simple to identify, yet seemingly impossible to remedy.

The reason Ag Climatise is dead-on-arrival is hidden in plain sight in Teagasc’s dairy roadmap. Here, it explains, in the midst of Ireland having declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, how milk output is going to increase by some 1.5 billion litres by 2027.

More milk means more cows. More cows mean even more methane, more ammonia and more fertilizers. All the industry limbo dancing about “efficiencies” cannot escape this basic equation. Between 2016-2019, the Dutch government was forced to cull its dairy herd by 11 per cent to combat spiralling phosphate pollution which breached the EU’s Nitrates Directive.

This hasn’t happened in Ireland – yet – but the writing is on the wall. The EPA’s submission to the consultation on Ag Climatise warned: “the environmental sustainability trends for water quality, air quality, greenhouse gasses and biodiversity are all going in the wrong direction.”

The overall success of Ag Climatise, the authority added, “will depend on the ability of the sector to reverse these trends in a measurable, verifiable and reportable manner”. The burning question remains: can this be done while ruminant numbers continue to climb?

This was answered in a Teagasc report from June 2018 which explained how “any reductions attributable to improved emissions intensity of produce would be partly or fully negated due to increases in total animal numbers and could even result in an increase of national GHGs”.

They went on to warn about the “rebound and backfire effects from increased efficiency”. In other words, as long as the herd grows, so too do all the associated problems of emissions and pollution.

This point could hardly be any clearer, yet the Ag Climatise report twists and turns through 30 pages and 29 ‘Actions’, even noting that 80 per cent of emissions are “related directly to the number of animals”, yet is never once prepared to take the cow by the horns and propose calling a halt to the policy of dairy expansion and intensification.

Teagasc employs many of the best agricultural scientists in the country and carries out valuable research and training work. Yet, on this crunch issue of curbing emissions, its Roadmap is hopelessly misguided and clearly out of step with even the work of its own scientists. Why?

Teagasc is governed by an 11-person Authority, five of whom, including the Chair, are dairy farmers. Tillage farmers I have spoken with feel like second class citizens. Despite being far better for domestic food security, pollution and emissions, the sector has been sidelined in the rush for ‘white gold’. How innocent do you to have to be to imagine that the over-representation of dairy interests on its Authority has no impact?

It would however be entirely unfair to blame Teagasc for the dismal failure that is Ag Climatise. That is owned by the Department of Agriculture itself, which has for years stymied meaningful climate action at every turn.

This shambles also turns up the heat on the Green Party. Junior minister, Pippa Hackett was rolled out to welcome the “ambitious actions” in the roadmap, but shortly afterwards, sent an email to party colleagues to try to explain away its abject failure of ambition, noting the plan for a 15 per cent agri emissions cut over 10 years was an awful lot less than the 7 per cent per annum the government has signed up to.

Next year, she says, things will be different, when the Climate Bill is enacted. Parliamentary party colleague Neasa Hourigan TD tweeted her dismay at Ag Climate, which she called “deeply worrying”, a sentiment that is shared far beyond the party.

Even within the hobbled ambitions of Ag Climatise, there are commitments that stretch credulity. For instance, it proposes 60 per cent low emissions slurry spreading by 2022, but in the entire last 20 years, barely 4 per cent has been achieved.

It didn’t have to be like this. A 2008 paper by Teagasc scientist, James Humphreys noted the marked improvement in Irish agriculture’s performance on emissions and ammonia, stating these were “as a result of declining ruminant livestock populations and declining fertilizer nitrogen use”.

The economic crash later that year changed everything. The incoming Fine Gael-led government in 2011 decided economic growth was all that mattered, and wrote the agri-industrial sector a blank check to engage in headlong expansion, a policy even Fine Gael’s wily European Commissioner, Phil Hogan warned would eventually end in tears. He wasn’t wrong.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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