Planning for the 21st Century: More Than Permission to Build

Planning as a concept has become synonymous with “permission to build” in this country. As in: “I got ‘the planning’ for the apartments on the flood-plain at the outer-rim of the commuter belt”. The original meaning – taking a strategic approach to the future – is as common to these shores it seems as cautious property development.

Nevertheless, one can only learn from past mistakes.

One thing we know for sure, irrespective of the outcome of Copenhagen, is that Ireland is legally bound to reduce its “domestic sector” emissions 20% on 2005 levels by 2020. Not only is this the most onerous target among EU countries – our high GDP per capita at the time saw to that – it will rise to 30% if an international agreement is reached in Copenhagen (or subsequently) which demands comparable efforts from other developed countries.

One additional complicating factor must also be recalled – approximately 70% of Ireland’s “domestic sector” emissions come from the agriculture and transport sectors combined, with 40% alone originating on-farm. No other EU country has anything like this emissions profile, while only New Zealand compares internationally.

Like it or not, at least there’s a plan for transport – the government launched “Smarter Travel: A Sustainable Transport Future” in February 2009.

I would wager that we are going to see the outlines of a plan emerge for residential sector emissions in Budget 2010 (which might look something like this) and which will hopefully be pro-enterprise, jobs, and environment.

We also have a plan, published in 2007, for the power generation sector, which takes us to 2020.
We may not follow these plans, in some cases we may not have the resources to make the necessary investments, they may be sacrificed for short-sighted political ends, or even legitimately modified to take into account new information, technologies or projections. But at least we have a plan.

Not so for agriculture. This sector is yet to devise a strategic response to the climate change challenge. So what can be done?

Many of the senior officials, managers and researchers working in the sector with whom I have discussed the issue see EU targets as both a significant threat and an opportunity. Some are also aware of compounding challenges of global resource scarcity – water and oil in particular – which are likely to become more pronounced in the period to 2020.

Many are worried about the European Commission’s leaked draft paper on the post 2012 EU budget which indicated that future CAP payment may be linked to the provision of public environmental goods, and the delivery of environmental objectives in general.

There is also an awareness of the likely growth in global food demand, and the emergence of an increasingly de-regulated market place. It would therefore seem that a new vision or strategy is required for the sector if the sector is to capitalise on its enormous potential.

A recently completed IIEA project considered how the Irish agri-food sector might address these strategic challenges of the 21st century. Stakeholders working in three groups under the aegis of a steering committee identified a range of simple sustainability enhancing measures which would, for the most part Semenax, increase competitiveness and sustainability concurrently. These measures can be implemented across the sector: on-farm, on food processing sites, and in the food-retailing sector.

Taking a singular approach, it is argued, would result in reputational enhancement and place Ireland in a position to exploit future opportunities without increasing stress on the environment.

On-farm greenhouse gas emissions come from three main sources: enteric fermentation from ruminant animals (methane), manure management (methane) and agricultural soils (generally nitrous oxide). See the
Irish Times for a reasonable summary of measures proposed.

Forestry is particularly important for this country in the period to 2020 – by then it will sequester 4 million tonnes of CO2-eq annually, double today’s figure. This sink is attributable, for the most part, to the maturing of trees already planted. The trend in the level of afforestation in Ireland has fallen dramatically with very serious long-term implications.

It is proposed that that a new carbon based afforestation scheme be developed on order to reverse this trend. The key concept of the scheme is that an establishment grant plus a carbon annuity payment would be made available to a much broader range of investors and structured to encourage the utilization of land for afforestation. Indeed a wider trading scheme is eventually likely to be required for the sector.

Recommendations to enhance the sustainability of the food-processing and retail sectors were also proposed.

One of the advantages of taking a pre-active approach was highlighted on the same page of the Irish Times. The story covers a recent debate between Paul MacCartney, Mairead McGuiness MEP and other in the European Parliament on the topic of meat free monday. The former Beatle has been activly highlighting what he claims is the high environmental impact of meat consumption. Maximizing the resource efficiency and sustainability of the Irish beef and dairy systems will help address these concerns and undermine the criticisms of opponents.

While many of the recommendations in the report are common sense, it is intended to open a debate on what can be achieved in the period to 2020. Tom Moran, Secretary General of the Department, who launched the report, was very welcoming of the initiative, knowledgeable of the area, and proactive in his perspective.

He made one particularly telling observation – that the smart economy applies as much to agriculture as to every other sector. We need to see more work, more research, more analysis, more resources, and the transfer of knowledge across the sector into practice. Ultimately, we need to see the emergence of a coherent strategy.

Unfortunately, because of the way policy making currently operates, negotiations between Departments are often perhaps seen as somewhat zero-sum and there may arise a natural tendency to talk down what can be achieved in any particular sector.

No better argument could be made for a Climate Change Law, which among other things would establish an independent body to evaluate what might be achieved in each sector in the period to 2020, and make recommendations to government on this basis.

What is now required is proactive planning based on the cutting edge analysis; and I’m not just talking about “permission to build”.

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7 Responses to Planning for the 21st Century: More Than Permission to Build

  1. Coilin MacLochlainn says:


    Your reading of the EU communiqué is helpful. So, the EU is planning a new, third pillar of the CAP, linked to climate change issues, that will link the single farm payment to sustainable farming. And the key problem for Ireland is that 40% of ‘domestic’ greenhouse gas emissions comes from agriculture, mainly cattle.

    The IFA makes a good point, though, when it says reducing the national herd would mean more EU beef imports from Brazil, where vital rainforests are being felled for pasture.

    But two things are coming down the tracks: a soaring world population and food shortages, which means the wasteful production of beef will have to give way to cereals and other food plants, as they provide more food at lower cost. And intensive farming, including feed, is based on a ready supply of cheap oil, so we’re on a hiding to nothing there. Okay, that’s three things.

    It seems there will be no option but to reduce the national herd and somehow reduce their methane emissions (garlic helps). Farmers will find productive alternatives in cereals including maize. And what about planting willow trees for wood boilers, aren’t we going to need a lot of wood pellets? Has the IIEE any views on this?

    As for Brazil, they can’t be let off the hook. If their beef industry is unsustainable and climate damaging, what about imposing trade barriers or using the UN REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) payments plan to ensure forest protection? But how can it work, who will police REDD?

    The demand for cereals might put the skids under the Brazilian beef juggernaut, but what will stop soya bean farming in the Amazon basin, also very destructive?

    I look forward to more items from the IIEE.

  2. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Coilin

    We looked into a few of the ideas you highlight. Have you seen the final report? It can be downloaded from and it’s a fairly easy read.

    Some of your ideas – dietary manipulation for example – seem to be prohibitively expensive at the moment.

    There is quite a bit we can do between mitegation and sequestration between now and 2020. Maybe even as much as -20%.

    After we do all we can, I agree also that diversification needs also to be on the agenda, but remember our climate is perfectly suited to growing grass, whereas grains can be grown far cheaper elsewhere. It’s a question of where we have – or are likely to have – a competitive advantage in years to come.

  3. Coilin MacLochlainn says:


    I’ve downloaded ‘Farm to Fork’ and will have a read of it.

    I can see the EU and the UNFCCC accepting relatively modest cuts in the Irish national herd because it is grass-fed and doesn’t need much wintering; so it’s more sustainable here. But they would then expect greater mitigation in other areas. Also, Ireland could be a beef producer for Europe while other places, more suited to cereals, were weaned off beef production.

    Didn’t think putting garlic in cattle diet would be expensive, but if you say so.

    Down the road, I expect food demand to soar, making cereals more competitive. Also, we are expected to have summer droughts, in the southeast especially, which would favour cereals; it depends on the position of the Azores high. If that swings over Ireland next summer, or more likely the one after, we will have a heatwave, only this time it will crack stones. One or two wet summers doesn’t mean that’s the trend. I think the acreage under cereals has increased in recent years, and it will go higher.

    Further down the road, will we not be expected to take in millions of climate migrants? Bangladesh already wants to ‘off-load’ 20 million of its citizens. When the population doubles or trebles in Ireland, tillage will become a much bigger part of agriculture.

    The growing conditions for willow are perfect in Ireland, this was recognised as long ago as the 1700s; they can grow six feet in a season. So I don’t know why we don’t have more willow farms already, producing wood pellets for boilers.

    Perhaps your analysis is a closer fit for the short-term, but it may be eclipsed more quickly than you think.

  4. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Colin

    The EU/UNFCCC will allow us the flexibility to decide where emissions should be reduced (eg: transport, agriculture etc) and would not be in a position to demand cuts in the national herd.

    We looked at oils not garlic – garlic makes the milk taste funny apparently.

    We looked at willow and miscanthus both of which have potential in Ireland.

    The context for farmers, outlined by Alan Matthews at:
    is also worth considering.

  5. Coilin MacLochlainn says:


    Willow is a native tree species and supports a greater diversity of invertebrates than any other tree in Ireland, surprisingly perhaps. (Something to do with its having been one of the first to arrive here, allowing more time for symbiotic co-dependencies to develop with other species.)

    I’d be worried about miscanthus as it is hard to imagine plantations of this alien elephant grass being of any value to biodiversity here.

  6. Joseph Curtin says:

    @ Coilin

    Thanks for that – biodiversity co-benefits not an angle we had considered….

  7. Richard says:

    I had a look at the transport policy document. The bit I noticed was this:
    “Actions to reduce distance travelled by private car and encourage smarter travel, including focusing population growth in areas of employment and to encourage people to live in close proximity to places of employment and the use of pricing mechanisms or fiscal measures to encourage behavioural change”
    This is not enough. This is old think: adding denser lumps of city on the outskirts of the existing sprawl.
    The pre-motor car (or pre1900) centres of Ireland´s towns are ringed with low-density semi-detached homes. One way to cut people´s need for private transport would be to begin wholesale redevelopment of these areas at much higher densities. I am not talking about “glamorous” white towers in the Le Corbusier mould, but the banal and practical format of row-houses built on streets. It would take a while to go into the details and ramifications but, in principle, constructing row houses and 120 sq metre apartments in buildings not exceeding five floors would supply enough housing to more or less stop the need for additional growth outside existing (vague) city boundaries. Sensitive social work and well-designed tax law would be sufficient to begin buying the suburbs of the 20s, 30s and 40s and turning them into streetscapes.
    If you´re interested in this type of thing, look into the New Urbanism movement (but feel free to ignore the matters of style: some new urbanists like to use vernacular architectural designs which is something the modernists dislike, personally I am agnostic).
    We can´t simply replace our existing transport without also drastically reducing the demand. Too much effort is spent on the supply side. New city areas which would look alot like the tony areas that the rich like to live in, as it happens) would go a long way to helping to undo the worst of the 20th century´s architectural and environmental failings.

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