Last week (28 July), the Irish government reached an agreement on targets for carbon reduction across multiple sectors.
The background: legislation has already been passed stating that Ireland must reduce its carbon emissions by 51% by 2030. Think of the passing of this legislation as phase 1.
Phase 2 involved negotiating how that number would be reached, sector by sector (energy sector, transport, agriculture, housing, etc.).
Phase 3 will involve figuring out what measures and policies are necessary on a per-sector basis to actually reach these targets. In other words, nothing has actually been implemented yet. In fact, like most other countries, Ireland’s carbon emissions continue to rise, year on year.
The most contentious part of these recent negotiations was around agriculture. As I wrote about in a previous post, agriculture has become a touchstone for the climate debate in Ireland because it makes up 37% of our carbon emissions, while adding only around 1% to our GDP1. It is a huge factor in making Ireland’s per capita carbon emissions higher than other countries. It also happens to be a highly symbolic way of life in Ireland, particularly since there is a longstanding cultural and political divide between Dublin and rural parts of Ireland. Coming from a rural part of Ireland myself (which is also the most economically neglected part of Ireland), I can understand the animosity aimed toward the government by rural communities. The have remained consistently underdeveloped for decades. Probably around 10% of people I grew up with still live in my hometown (anecdotal), with the rest forced to migrate to Dublin, or abroad, to find work.
In the government’s original action plan, they set out potential reduction ranges for each sector. Farming was between 22%-30%. In the end, a 25% reduction in farming emissions was agreed.
The compromise number seemed to upset all sides. Representatives for farmers felt it was too high, while representatives for environmental parties felt it was too low, leading to the burden for other sectors being unreasonably high to compensate.
Below are all the agreed targets:
|Electricity||75%||10.5 MtCO2eq||3 MtCO2eq|
|Transport||50%||12 MtCO2eq||6 MtCO2eq|
|Buildings (Commercial and Public)||45%||2 MtCO2eq||1 MtCO2eq|
|Buildings (Residential)||40%||7 MtCO2eq||4 MtCO2eq|
|Industry||35%||7 MtCO2eq||4 MtCO2eq|
|Agriculture||25%||23 MtCO2eq||17.25 MtCO2eq|
|Other**||50%||2 MtCO2eq||2 MtCO2eq|
**F-gases, petroleum refining and waste.
It is also important to point out that all these reductions don’t actually add up to the 51% cuts required by law. They only add up to 42%. The remainder? This will be solved with ’technological advances’ according to the government…
I wrote in my previous post that the symbolic conflict around farming and climate change policies is being leveraged by opposition parties and that this was unfortunate, since it doesn’t account for the real sacrifices in society that do need to be made.
However, I have since come around to the farmers’ position a bit more. After all, farming is a huge part of Irish identity and, if the industry is encouraged to die off, something of our cultural heritage will also be lost too.
This is a loss that could certainly be acceptable in the case that meaningful progress was made toward saving the Earth. However, this is not inevitable.
For example, imagine if farmers did indeed start to reduce their herds and shrink their output. At the same time, imagine very little progress is made across other sectors. In this case, in twenty years time we could still be in a horrifying dystopia, but with a part of our identity cut from us.
The points in favour of this second case occurring are:
(1) Just because farmers reduce production doesn’t mean consumption is reduced. Irish people may still choose to import beef from other countries, countries which may not have as progressive (in terms of animal welfare) farming practices as Ireland. In the global sense, Irish agriculture doesn’t contribute much. We are a small country. In any case, if we continue to consume the same amount of beef, the global carbon footprint associated with that remains the same.2
(2) It is still uncertain whether we can get anywhere close to 51% carbon reduction. There is still little in the way of concrete policies in this regard. And, where there are some strategies, they border on the absurd. For example, in the case of reducing emissions from transport, the current plan is to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road in Ireland by 2030. Ireland’s population is around 5 million. Around 100,000 cars are sold every year here. There are 8 years between now and 2030. When you start to do the math, the 1 million number doesn’t add up. The only way it could be achieved is if our population grows a lot (and, with it, car sales), and by making diesel and petrol vehicles prohibitively expensive, while somehow making electric vehicles affordable enough for even low income families. That’s the kind of political action that seems virtually impossible within the kind of system we currently have. To quote Jean-Claude Juncker:
“We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”
At least this discussion is now being had in the public sphere and I do believe solutions can be found.
I think that rather of talking about simply ‘reducing’ the size of agriculture, more debate needs to be had around different ways that it could be re-structured. The aim here would be to maintain tradition and respect the identity of these communities, but to re-imagine alternative practices that also respect the environment. Farmers in Ireland are among the chief stewards of our land, and they should be engaged with on that level, not simply treated as a homogeneous ‘industry’.
I’m simplifying this a bit for the sake of argument. I’m not sure how it would work in practice, since perhaps if we want consumption to remain high, we would end of paying some kind of carbon tax on that, which could offset carbon output in other ways. For example, say we import beef from Russia, but pay our some carbon credits to a project for reforestation or something. ↩︎