Creed gets creamed over dodgy dairy data

Going right back to late last year, a concerted campaign has been led by folks in the Department of Agriculture to create ‘alternative facts’ about emissions emanating from our rapidly expanding dairy herd. A new phrase – decoupling – was rolled out to promote the idea that amazing technological breakthroughs had allowed the dairy sector to ramp up production without any commensurate increase in carbon (specifically, methane) emissions.

Were it true, this would be very good news indeed. But, of course, it’s not. An eagle eyed Dáil researcher first tipped off An Taisce to this newly minted ‘decoupling’ lingo, and it was duly investigated and found to be, well, complete nonsense. On June 25th, I drafted a release on behalf of An Taisce calling on Minister Creed to ‘retract misleading Dáil statements on rising dairy emissions’.

To be absolutely fair, we had given the minister two full months to deal with this before going public, and he had declined to take a step backwards. In his written response to An Taisce, Creed had stated: “The 8% increase in emissions I referred to is the growth in total agricultural emissions and reflects that while dairy numbers (and emissions) are increasing, other sub sectors of agriculture are contracting. It is valid to consider the sector as a whole in presenting this data”.

Briefly, Creed & Co. had tried a favourite statistical sleight of hand: talk on the one hand about dairy production rising by around 27%, then switch when describing emissions to talking about emissions for the entire agriculture sector, which in this case had risen by a still quite scandalous 8%. To the unwary, this could be sold as a massive increase in dairy output, with “only” an 8% increase in emission. Et Voila, decoupling!

No doubt some clever principal officer in the department, or perhaps in Teagasc, dreamed this one up, but it’s still just a simple three-card trick. Since Creed decided in his wisdom to double down, we took the story to the Farming Independent, and they did a reasonable job with it, albeit capping it with a desperately bland and somewhat misleading heading that framed this as a simple dispute between Creed and An Taisce, rather than pointing out where he had been deliberately misleading, and the fact that, when challenged, he had no answers.

I had also had a chat with the editor at the investigative website, DeSmog.uk and he had no difficulty in recognising the deception involved, so I filed a piece for them, which they labelled: ‘EXCLUSIVE: Ireland’s Government Using Fake Data to Pretend Dairy Emissions Aren’t Rising Fast‘. That was a lot closer to the truth.

From there, the wheels kept rolling. While it was probably easy enough to ignore a specialist website, next, the science editor of the UK Independent picked up the story, sourcing DeSmog, under the heading: ‘Irish government using wrong data to downplay greenhouse gas emissions from cows’. And, to add insult to ignominy, the Guardian’s environment editor, Damian Carrington tweeted out a link to my DeSmog piece, which he captioned: ‘Fake Moos’.

Nor did the fun end there. Nearly a month later, the Irish edition of the Sunday Times contacted me about the piece and filed their own report, headed: ‘Dairy row heats up – An Taisce calls on minister to correct ‘misleading’ GHG figures’. Maybe what still bothers me and others most about this story is that, even when caught red-handed telling whoppers on the Dáil record, Creed has, as of right now, still not retracted his statements.

On a positive note, they have at least got the message and ‘decoupling’ has been quietly excised from the lexicon of Agri Spin, so it was not in vain after all. Creed and his officials are quite entitled to have their own views on dairy expansion, and their critics are equally entitled to challenge these, but there is, I believe, absolutely no excuse for allowing our public representatives to manufacture their own ‘alternative facts’ to support these views. That’s a red line we must hold at all costs.

Below, for the record, is my piece as it appeared in DeSmog:

IRELAND’S AGRICULTURE Minister, Michael Creed and his officials are mounting a co-ordinated campaign to mislead the Irish parliament (Dáil) about the true state of spiralling dairy emissions, DeSmog.uk has learned.

Emissions from Ireland’s rapidly expanding dairy sector have shot up in recent years, in direct conflict with government policy. But the government continues to use bunk data to assert that this is not the case.

On 26 April 2018, Minister Creed told the Dáil: “in the five-year period 2012-2016, dairy cow numbers have increased by 22 percent and corresponding milk production by 27 percent while emissions increased just 8 percent, demonstrating a level of decoupling is occurring.”

This point was amplified by one of Creed’s senior officials, Jack Nolan, at a parliamentary joint committee hearing, when he claimed: “S​ince 2015 we have increased milk output by 13.5 percent, whereas emissions have only increased by 1.6 percent. Massive efficiency gains are happening at the moment”.

Junior Agriculture Minister, Andrew Doyle in December 2017 made the same point about apparent dramatic decoupling of dairy output from carbon emissions.

All these claims are refuted by data compiled by Ireland’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA). This indicates that carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from dairy rose by a massive 24 percent from 2012 to 2016,​ ​which closely tracks the 22 percent increase in national dairy cow numbers and a 27 percent milk production hike in the same period.

An Taisce, Ireland’s national trust, became aware of the statements being made within the parliament and wrote to Creed on May 4th last, pointing out the erroneous data and requesting that he formally correct the Dáil record.

In response, Creed admitted to An Taisce that his claim of ‘only’ eight percent emissions increases arising from a 27 percent increase in dairy output “is the growth in total agricultural emissions and reflects that while dairy numbers (and emissions) are increasing, other sub-sectors of agriculture are contracting”. It is, the minister added, “valid to consider the sector as a whole in presenting this data”.

However, An Taisce told DeSmog UK that the minister’s response was “simply indefensible”. ​By not correcting his statement, “it seems the minister is now willing to mislead the Dáil and the public, even when called out. This is unacceptable. We now publicly call on the minister to correct the Dáil record as a matter of urgency”.

The reason officials like Creed are prepared to go to such lengths to present a rosy picture of agricultural emissions is that rapid expansion of the national dairy herd is de facto  government policy, even though it flatly contradicts the Irish state’s EU and Paris Agreement obligations to slash carbon emissions.

Recent EPA projections showed that, instead of meeting its EU obligations to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent by 2020, Ireland would “at best” achieve a negligible one percent cut versus 2005 levels. Agricultural emissions, meanwhile, continue to spiral, hence the pressure on ministers to massage the figures to present a ‘good news story’ on dairy emissions.

More pressure was ratcheted on Irish government inaction with the publication earlier this month by Climate Action Network Europe of its ranking of EU countriesin terms of their ambition and progress in tackling climate change. Ireland was ranked 2nd worst in the EU, only ahead of coal-dependent Poland in the rankings.

Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar is clearly uneasy at the growing reputational damage arising from what he admits is its status as a climate “laggard”. He told the European Parliament earlier this year that he was “not proud of Ireland’s performance” on climate, but domestically, the grip of the powerful agri-industrial lobby on government policy remains unshaken.

Having failed to manage emissions, it appears at least some in the Irish government have switched focus to concentrate on managing climate change messaging instead.

Disclosure: John Gibbons is a volunteer member of An Taisce’s climate change committee.

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