Coming up short on fanciful sectoral emissions goals

As the controversial sectoral budgets for Ireland were published, the Irish Examiner asked for my take on how they measured up, particularly the ultra-low 25% target assigned to Ireland’s largest polluting industry. This piece ran at the start of August.

IT IS SAID that if you’ve managed to annoy and infuriate all sides, then clearly you are doing something right. This being the case, the government should be fairly happy with the  compromise on sectoral emissions budgets it has cobbled together after weeks and months of wrangling and arm-twisting.

The headline-grabbing number is of course the 25% emissions cut agreed for agriculture, the sector contributing by far the largest single share of the national carbon pollution pie, at over one third of all emissions.

While this is undoubtedly an unfairly low percentage of the overall burden, for agriculture to come within the proverbial country mile of this target will require the dramatic reversal of an aggressive expansionist policy in the dairy sector that has seen around half a million cows added to the herd, pushing overall sectoral emissions up by almost 20% in the last decade.

Further, the current ‘road map’ for the dairy sector published by Teagasc, the state agricultural research agency, sees continued expansion in dairy output until at least 2027. While often presented as being impenetrably complex, the basic equation here is actually surprisingly simple: more milk means more methane, more nitrogen and more water pollution. No amount of tech fixes or promises of ‘efficiency’ can overcome these basic facts.

If agriculture is to reduce it emissions by a quarter this decade, and those emissions are in lock-step with ruminant livestock agriculture, then something has to give. Minister Charlie McConalogue has rushed to stress that no farmer will be forced to reduce herd numbers, in other words, everything is voluntary.

Really? Are the carbon budgets for the energy and transport similarly voluntary, to be discarded if viewed as inconvenient in the years ahead? This is clearly not the case, hence McConalogue’s reassurances on this score should be interpreted with caution.

The government’s plan to have solar farms cover 6,000 hectares of land sound ambitious. A typical well located solar farm should generate one megawatt of electricity per four hectares at peak output, meaning the government plan would add around 1.5gw of solar, the equivalent of two typical gas or coal-fired power stations.

For farmers, leasing land for solar farms should be a financial no-brainer, as installation is generally fairly quick and easily reversible in the future. Solar farms are also far less visually intrusive than wind turbines, and is thus less likely to provoke local Nimby resistance.

Eamon Ryan’s plan to go big on anaerobic digesters (AD) sounds at first glance to be a winner. It makes perfect sense to harness slurry and food waste for methane production, but scaling up will require feeding lots of grass into the AD units. This means using some of our grass to produce energy instead of meat and milk, thus allowing farmers to reduce their stocking density and cut emissions with little or no loss of income.

But the science on AD is far from simple. First, the grass being fed into a digester cannot be grown using (imported) artificial nitrogen, otherwise you are simply turning one fossil fuel into another form of fuel, which makes no sense from an energy standpoint. Second, ADs have to be extremely well run and maintained, as any leakage of methane over around 2% wipes out the climate benefits of the entire unit.

As Marie Donnelly, chair of the state’s Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) pointed out, there remains “considerable uncertainly around how the carbon budgets will be delivered”. While the CCAC acknowledges that the government targets are a “useful starting point”, this needs to be thought of as a ratchet. Targets, ambition – and pain – are all going to have to be ratcheted up significantly later this decade to make up for missing our targets in the shorter term.

Donnelly also noted that when taken together, the targets theoretically achieve 43%, which is well shy of the government’s headline 51% goal, and even at that, the Land Use sector is omitted. In Ireland, land use is in fact a major net source of carbon emissions, particularly from drained peaty soils and peat bogs.

The transport sector has been given a 50% target, which would require radical changes on a scale not seen in the last half century and more. Consider how long the idea of building a Dublin Metro has been kicking around without an inch of actual rail line being laid, or look at the resistance at local level to even the mildest efforts at taking road space from private motorists and the scale of the challenge of transport decarbonisation becomes clearer.

A shift to electric vehicles is now inevitable given that the motor industry is quickly switching away from petrol and diesel-powered vehicles, but simply replacing a million regular cars with a million EVs will do nothing to ease congestion and our car-dependent culture.

The electricity production sector has been handed the monumental target of 75% decarbonisation by 2030, partly to compensate for others negotiating far lower ambitions. This will present formidable technical challenges but, with strong ambition on offshore wind in particular, it may well be achieved.

A big imponderable in all of this is what happens when the coalition falls and, in all likelihood is replaced by a Sinn Féin-led administration. The party has remained uncharacteristically mute throughout the entire emissions budget process, seemingly determined to not risk any political capital whatever on taking a position, especially regarding agri emissions. Avoiding tough decisions of course will no longer be so easy once Sinn Féin is itself in power.

As the negotiations dragged on this summer, Europe burned and wildfires and deadly floods circled the globe. As temperatures in the UK breached 40C earlier this month, the highest ever recorded, the spectre of devastating climate breakdown drew ever closer to our own shores.

It used to be seen as politically courageous or naive to advocate for strong action on climate. Now, anything else frankly looks suicidal.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator

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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