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Can Irish agriculture be climate-neutral?

The very vocal anti-farming minority has had a field-day in recent years. The climate change issue has become a runaway train, and they have gleefully jumped on. Also on this train are the Green Party, RTE, the oil industry, CCAC, the animal rights activists, An Taisce and the EPA.

An unholy alliance and all happy to blame farmers for global warming, and anything else they can think of. A recent report in the Guardian outlines how climate activists accepted millions from a charity linked to oil companies. Strange bedfellows indeed.

To make things better, in the last election, the Green Party got 4% of the vote, and now they call all the shots. It is interesting to note that Hitler had to get 37% of the vote in Germany before he could call all the shots.

There is no doubt that GW(global warming) is continuing apace, with many governments looking to agriculture, and particularly livestock farming as a convenient scapegoat. The time has come for us to review all that has gone on regarding GW and the impact of agriculture.

About 36 billion tons of CO2 or CO2e(equivalent) are released into the atmosphere every year. The IPCC tells us there are three main sources:

1. 78% is Carbon Dioxide(CO2), mostly coming from burning fossil fuels - 28Mt CO2

2. 16% is Methane(CH4), coming from landfill/wetlands, industry and livestock - 5.8Mt CO2e

3. 6% is Nitrous Oxide(N2O), mostly coming from fertiliser - 2.2Mt CO2e

All three are considered to be GHG's (greenhouse gases) because increasing their concentration in the atmosphere causes the planet to heat up.

It must be noted that there has always been carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, it's adding to the background volume that’s the problem.

N2O is the smallest contributor to GW, but is still relevant. In grassland situations like Ireland, using clover to reduce dependance on nitrogen does help. Treated urea also helps. However it is important to remember that on a global basis, the majority of artificial nitrogen is used on arable crops like wheat, barley, maize and soya.

The green lobby promotes the idea of organic farming, under which scenario food production would fall by approx. 50%. Like it or not, artificial nitrogen is key to feeding the world for the foreseeable future. We are essentially swopping oil for food. Sri Lanka had famine within a year of banning artificial fertiliser.

The elephant in the room:

Carbon Dioxide is the elephant in the room, If we don’t do something about it we are doomed. There are many sources of carbon dioxide but the ones that cause GW are the ones that are a one way ticket. ie fossil fuels, like coal, oil, gas.

For millions of years they have been locked in the ground, we dig them out, burn them, and so convert them to CO2. The CO2 goes up into the atmosphere, thereby increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and stays there long term causing ongoing global warming.

Not all CO2 causes global warming. For instance the CO2 emitted by the exhaust of a car is the exact same molecule as the CO2 emitted by humans exhaling. The CO2 emitted by the car does cause global warming, but the CO2 emitted by humans doesn't. This is because the the CO2 emitted by humans is simply returning to the atmosphere the carbon contained in the meat milk, grain, and other foods consumed. Its all part of a natural cycle.

On the other hand the CO2 produced by burning fuel is a one way ticket, and so does cause global warming.

Cows also produce CO2. The average cow emits approx. 5 tons of CO2 per annum. So the 1 billion livestock on the planet emit approx. 5 billion tons of CO2 annually, but it is irrelevant, as they are simply returning the carbon to the atmosphere that was removed by the forage they consumed.

A mature cow will remove approx. 11 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere through the forage she consumes. About 50% is returned immediately through respiration, about 3% is returned as methane, which after 10 years converts back to CO2 and returns to where it came from - the atmosphere. Of the remaining carbon, a small amount is locked away permanently in the soil, with the rest being retuned to the atmosphere by humans consuming meat and milk.

So the carbon dioxide that really matters, is the one produced by burning fossil fuels.

Biogenic Methane

Methane is just like carbon dioxide, some methane emissions cause global warming, and some don't.

Take for instance the methane from mining. It has been locked in the ground for millions of years, and when it is released, it is additional methane, and so causes a lot of warming. It then converts to CO2, and is additional to what CO2 was already in the atmosphere, and carries on causing global warming for thousands of years.

Contrast this with the methane emitted by a cow. Before a cow can emit methane, CH4, the carbon it contains must first be taken from the atmosphere as CO2. It is taken in through the forage she consumes.

A mature cow will emit 0.1t of methane annually. It stays in the atmosphere for about 10 years and then coverts to CO2 and returns to where it came from, the atmosphere, and back into the growing cycle once more.

So if we take o.1t of methane as average for the 1 billion livestock on the planet, then every year 100 million tons of methane are produced. Crucially however, as we have a static global herd, 100 million tons leaves the atmosphere every year, as it converts back to CO2.

Consequently, the amount of methane in the atmosphere doesn't change, and consequently there is no additional warming from the 100 million tons of methane emitted.

This is very important - with 100 million tons moving out of the atmosphere and 100 million tons coming in from livestock. there is no additional warming created.

Global livestock has been static at 1 billion for the last 50 yrs so this is effectively the situation that we have today.

Both the CO2 and methane emitted by ruminants are part of the same cycle, and all their constituents are accounted for in that cycle, yet the U.N.'s IPCC stated that the CO2 from ruminants was irrelevant, because it was part of a natural cycle, and then went on to count another part of that same cycle (methane) as permanent and cumulative.

IPCC Changes:

In tandem with this situation the metrics we use for measuring GHG's, a mathematical equivalent method, will multiply this 100Mt by 28 to give a CO2e of 2.8 billion tons.

So now we have a situation where, according to the maths, the global ruminant/ livestock herd has caused 2.8 billion tons of CO2e warming, but the science says they have caused zero additional warming.

This flawed approach of treating methane from mining (one way ticket) and methane from livestock (cyclical) as equal was introduced by the IPCC. It is wildly supported by green parties everywhere, as it portrays livestock as a major cause of global warming.

To be fair to the IPCC they have rowed back greatly on this thinking. Last August in their 6th assessment they stated that the system used currently overestimated the warming impact of methane from livestock by 300 - 400% and underestimated the warming impact of methane from mining and fossil fuel production by 400 - 500%.

What this means is that, according to the IPCC, the warming impact of methane from livestock is only 5% of the warming impact of methane from mining.

Also they indicated that the current method of measuring the warming impact of methane, GWP100 (mathematical equivalent), is incorrect, and will likely be changed to GWP*(measures warming impact) in the near future.

Yet these seismic revelations were completely ignored, they were never mentioned by any of the people who constantly portray cows as a major cause of global warming (Irish Government, RTE, An Taisce, EPA, and printed media). To this day it is all still measured the same way. The day they knew they were wrong our government should have thrown them out. If the EPA was genuinely only interested in science and truth, they would be clamouring for the metrics to be changed.

Instead they persist with them and the messaging that they use around them because this wrong methodology keeps farmers over a barrel.

If methane from ruminants can cause global warming, then why in the 40 million years that ruminants have existed, did they wait until now to do so?

If the mathematical equivalent method was correct then the global ruminant population has emitted enough methane over the last 2,000 years to cause the earth to warm by somewhere between 4 and 6 degrees, and this would be independent of any warming from burning fossil fuels.

The fact that this didn't happen means that the carbon cycle is working very well and the methane they emit is just part of a natural cycle, and all that biogenic methane has been successfully recycled back into the atmosphere and back into the growing cycle.

It is interesting to note that in the 2,000 years from 150BC to 1850AD the globes average temperature dropped by 0.25 degrees, in spite of all the billions of tons of methane emitted by the endless billions of ruminants that roamed the earth over those centuries. Since 1850 the globes temperature has risen dramatically, and absolutely in tandem with the burning of fossil fuels.

Can methane from ruminants ever cause warming?

Yes, in certain circumstances, it can cause a little. Here's how…….

As stated earlier, the current global livestock herd is fairly static at 1 billon for the last half century (human population has gone from 4 to 8 billion people), giving us a neutral effect on warming, as 100 million tons of methane enters the atmosphere and 100 million tons leaves.

If, however there is an increase in numbers of 5%, then we have 5% extra methane entering the atmosphere. This is additional and so has GWP (global warming potential).

To convert this extra 5 million tons of methane to CO2e we multiply by 84( not 28) giving a total CO2e of 420 million tons. This is the real figure, and is small.

However the GWP100 metric is 105 million tons multiplied by 28 giving a total of CO2e 2.9 billion tons . This is a massive difference between the real figure and the theoretical one.

At the Oireachtas hearing which we attended, Michael Fitzmaurice asked Professor Myles Allen what would the effect be on the planet if we got rid of all livestock (ruminants). The answer he got was this:

Over a period of twenty years the globe's temperature would drop by a few hundredths of a degree, on a once off basis. However this drop would be completely masked by the 0.2 degree rise per decade that is currently happening from burning fossil fuels.

The fact is, that any effect ruminants are capable of having on the planet is negligible, just as it has been for millions of years.

Again, to their credit, in 2030, the IPCC are predicted to be dropping the GWP100, and introducing GWP* (Oxford) which measures the actual warming impact. This will be a game changer for Irish livestock farming and can't come quick enough.

Continuous warming:

This is a concept that has surfaced in recent years. This is my best shot at explaining it:

The first thing we must do to stop climate change, is stop adding to the problem.

We must stop adding Carbon Dioxide, Methane, and Nitrous Oxide to the atmosphere. The thinking is, that even after we have stopped adding these gases, the earth will continue to warm because of the increased size of these banks of gases in the atmosphere. They describe this effect as LEGACY WARMING or CONTINUOUS WARMING. One scientist described it to me as a sort of an afterglow, a legacy effect. There is still a lot of debate about the size of this effect and even the validity of the theory.

The Oxford University team led by Professor Myles Allen are among the leaders in the research on climate change. At the Oireachtas hearing in July 2022, he pointed out that for livestock to be neutral in their effect on the planets temperature a reduction in methane from ruminants of 3% over 10 years is required, or 0.3% per annum. With the global herd static there is no warming from the methane from the global herd, it is neutral, but the 0.3% p.a. reduction is to offset the legacy warming effect.

There is some debate about the validity of this figure, as it is dependent on how much the bank of methane in the atmosphere increased by, due to an increase in the size of the global ruminant population. A lot of work seems to indicate that over the last 500 years we have simply swopped wild ruminants for domesticated ones. The work of Professor A.N. Hristov of U.S. suggests that methane from ruminants in the 1500's was 86% of todays emissions.

What is definitely not contested by scientists, is that a reduction of 0.3% p.a. in biogenic methane would definitely put livestock in a neutral position with regard to the earth's temperature. Professor Allen outlined all of this at the Oireachtas hearing. There is no disagreement among climate scientists on these figures. However they are not accepted by the anti-farming Axis of the Green Party, An Taisce, and the EPA.

To expand on Professor Allen's work, lets look at the implications on a global scale:

According to the USDA, globally, livestock reached 1 billion in 1974, peaked at 1.1 billion in 1998 and is now at 1 billion again.

Taking the difference between 1998 and 2022, this is an annual drop of 0.3%p.a. It is reasonable to assume that with a fall in the numbers of ruminants there would be a corresponding fall in the amount of biogenic methane of 0.3%, which is exactly what is needed for climate neutrality.

In this scenario, it is a reasonable conclusion that, GLOBALLY, LIVESTOCK HAS BEEN CLIMATE NEUTRAL FOR THE LAST 30YRS, at a time when the enemies of livestock farming were being allowed a free run in inflicting massive reputational damage on our industry.

If those people were genuinely concerned about climate change, they would be addressing the causes of climate change, not the scapegoat.

Where do we go from here?

Thats the big question.

Firstly we must continually, and fearlessly, promote the science. The science is on the side of the cow. The policy is on the side of anti-farming brigade. However we are going in fighting with big dogs, and even though right is on our side, and we will eventually win, it will take a long time, so there has to be another plan to run in parallel.

Thankfully we have some excellent scientists in Teagasc. Professor Laurence Shalloo has many times outlined a plan for Irish Farming to be Climate Neutral, and by 2040 at that. It is likely that Irish Agriculture will be the first, and only, sector to reach Climate Neutrality.

Can Irish agriculture be climate-neutral?

Yes it definitely can. Firstly we must define what Climate Neutral means.

Being climate neutral means that we are not helping drive any temperature increase. That is the aim of the Paris Agreement, to be neutral in our effect on the globe's temperature.

Globally, livestock is dropping by 0.3% p.a., and so is neutral in its effects on the planet. So, globally, livestock has achieved the Paris Agreement.

To put it simply, for a sector or a country to be Climate Neutral, its carbon footprint must be NET NEUTRAL, its emissions, minus its removals must be zero.

For Professor Shalloo's plan to work a number of things must happen first;

1. GWP100 must be dropped and GWP* introduced. This is predicted to be happening in 2030. The Greens, An Taisce etc. won't like it, but its happening anyway. At the Oireachtas hearing we attended, Barry McMullin of An Taisce & DCU argued very strongly with Professor Allen's positon that it shouldn't be introduced. It puts in train a process that exonerates the cow, based on science, and it seems he is not happy with that.

2. The two sectors, Agriculture and LULUCF should be merged. They are already merged at the IPCC level in a single sector known as Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Use (AFOLU). This change is proposed to happen in the EU in 2030. It is ridiculous to have cows in one sector, and the land she grazes in another sector.

3. Agriculture must be allowed a net carbon footprint. At the moment our carbon footprint is a gross one. The country aims to be net neutral, so surely it is sensible for each sector to aim to be net neutral, and to be allowed to be net neutral.

At the moment we are not allowed deduct from our carbon footprints, the huge removals by our grassland, our forestry, or our hedgerows. We are not allowed deduct from carbon footprints the CO2 savings of solar panels or anerobic digestors. Yet we are constantly being told we must do these things. Why should we, when another sector gets the credit?

4. The debacle over the emissions factors must be sorted.

The EPA was the body charged with coming up with the figures for the emissions and removals for all sectors.

However the only sector capable of any removals was Agriculture/LULUCF. There was plenty of research available for emissions from most sectors, except for emissions from drained wetlands and removals by forestry, and removals by mineral soils.

So as they had no scientific research for Irish soils, they had to rely on International Default figures. Basically a guess, and they certainly didn’t guess on the farmers side, and they didn't tell anyone it was just a guess. The figures they produced were 2 million tons removals by Irish mineral soils and 9 million tons emissions from drained wetlands. A net emission of 7 million tons. These figures were produced as gospel, or "robust" as the CCAC likes to call them, without any caveat as to the lack of research on their origins. Once again the EPA handed the CCAC, and the extremists, a stick to beat farmers with.

So what is the true situation?

In July 2022, Professor Garry Lanigan of Teagasc published his research on removals by Irish mineral soils. This research shows that Irish soils are removing a huge amount of CO2 every year, somewhere between 10 and 13 million tons. A far cry from the current inventory figure of 2 million tons.

I immediately wrote to the CCAC and suggested to them the they drop their incorrect figure, and adopt Professor Lanigan's figures, and let the figures evolve as the science evolves. I got back a strongly worded letter, stating that their figures were "robust".

Professor Lanigan's research is a good news story for Irish farmers, and in June 2023 there was another good news story from Teagasc. Recent research shows that Irish drained wetlands are emitting approx. 4 million tons of CO2, instead of the 9 million tons, as guessed by the EPA.

This gives net removals by Irish soils as 6 to 9 million tons, a far cry from the 7 million tons of net emissions as suggested by the EPA. It is essential we are allowed to count our removals, but be assured, every effort will be made to prevent us.

Regarding forestry, there is a figure in the inventory of 5 million tons of removals by Irish forestry. Half of this is the property of Irish Farmer/Foresters, or 2.5 million tons of removals.

So, what's the plan?

Irish farmers, in conjunction with Teagasc, or other appropriately qualified scientists, must put together a parallel accounting system that reports all the same data but under the GWP* metrics, and also deduct all our removals to give a net carbon footprint for Irish Agriculture.

As can be seen from the graph below, a reduction of 10% (this is because we are tied in to a baseline of 2018 emissions) in our methane emissions wipes out approx. 10 or 12 million tons of our carbon footprint which is the amount associated with biogenic methane.

This leaves us with somewhere between 10 and 12 million tons of CO2 to mitigate. This can be done, and will be done, by;

1. Removals by Irish Farm Forestry…………………………………2.5 million tons as currently in the inventory.

2. Reduction in Nitrous Oxide emissions………………………..2 million tons, as per Teagasc.

3. Removals(net) by soils……………………………………………..6 to 9 million tons.






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