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What is agriculture's 'fair share' of Irish emissions?

There is little denying that the debate on the topic of emissions is heating up in recent months and reaching an absolute fever pitch as we await news of the sectoral targets agreed to. Predictably, tempers on both sides are flaring and from the anti-farming side, there is a lot of talk about agriculture’s ‘fair share’.

These comments tend to take a couple of different angles. Either farmers are trying to weasel out of doing their ‘fair share’ or that other industries will suffer 'unfairly increased reductions' because farming has a powerful lobby behind it that is able to 'get their own way' while Irish people suffer.

So I thought it time that we took a rational and considered look at what agriculture’s fair share actually is.

Let’s start here, in a place that hopefully we can all be unified:

Global warming is real and happening. It is caused by human activity. We have to take actions to reduce activities that are causing it to rise, then increase activities that will help the earth to cool and stabilise temperatures – I think most are agreed here.

This means that we must reduce emissions that are causing global warming. This is important to reflect on. No one is asking people to reduce what they eat by 10% because the emissions from people eating are not causing global warming. Everything they eat has removed carbon from the atmosphere and their emissions are already offset against this removal on the farm – I hope that this will be a fairly uncontroversial position too.

It should be noted at this juncture that every person, animal and plant on this planet is a ‘carbon-based life form’. Simply existing on the planet does not cause global warming – except – it should be clearly understood that the biosphere of our planet has an upper limit of the amount of lifeforms it can sustain and needs a balance of plant and animals to function properly.

I don’t know what the upper limit of life forms that can be supported by the earth is and for the purposes of this article, it doesn’t matter – it's a separate topic of you will.

A scientifically supported position was highlighted by Professor Myles Allen in the Oireachtas last week – the commitment that we have made, nationally and internationally, is to reduce emissions that are causing global warming. That’s the goal. It is in everyone’s best interests. We all want this to happen. And to do that, we need to define our activities by global warming potential in the same way that we do for the greenhouse gases involved.

What seems to be forgotten in the near hysterical bleating about methane is that it is not an evil gas to be completely eliminated and this would solve all of our problems. The reason that methane exists at all in the natural carbon cycle is because it is supposed to. We need a certain level of methane in the atmosphere to maintain life on earth.

The vast majority of carbon-based life forms emit methane to some degree or another, it is the result of carbon being broken down in anaerobic conditions – like a digestive system. So, all animals that eat any kind of plant life will emit it – people eating a completely plant diet will emit more of it than people who don’t. Wetlands emit methane naturally in cycles. All of this is normal, natural and does not cause global warming.

Over several millennia, the earth stored huge pockets of methane geologically and this was no issue at all either....until we came along and started releasing it in vast quantities in the pursuit of fossil fuels. We’ve known that this is a massive problem and the absolute foundational driver of climate change for a long time.

I hope at this stage in the conversation, we can agree that the job of the carbon budgets is to reduce emissions that are causing global warming – so the questions then arises:

What percentage of the emissions in the various sectors are causing global warming?

We are clear on this point – greenhouse gases contribute to warming when they are additional to the stabilised amount of carbon that goes round and round through the carbon cycle. Agriculture is a carbon-based industry and exists almost entirely within this cycle – with additions from chemical fertilisers created from fossil fuels etc. Energy and transport are fossil fuel based industries and exists entirely outside of this natural cycle and is additional (with the exception of wind and solar power etc). But the system treats both of these types of industries in exactly the same way and talk about them as if they are the same – they're not.

When it comes to doing their ‘fair share’, each sector must be held responsible for reducing that global warming that they are doing. Commentators have suggested that a 22% cut in agricultural emissions would create an unfair burden on the other sectors such as energy and transport. So, let’s examine that claim, shall we?

In relation to cattle and biogenic methane, Professor Myles Allen presented evidence at the Oireachtas to say that a 3% cut to methane emissions brings cattle to neutral, neither warming nor cooling. Any cuts to biogenic methane beyond that is contributing to global cooling.

So, the first 3% of that reduction would bring cattle to neutral and the remaining 19% is now causing global cooling. Agriculture will have wiped out their warming emissions from cattle and now be contributing to global cooling, offsetting continued warming from other sectors – although they will probably still be demonised in the press and positioned as ‘not doing enough’ and having ‘gotten their own way’.

Meanwhile, what about transport and energy sectors?

100% of emissions from transport and energy contribute to global warming. An 80% cut to energy emissions reduces the amount of active global warming they are doing down to 20%. As new net zero methods of energy production come online to take up the slack in power production, hopefully that 20% will be eliminated.

Increasing reductions means increasing the amount by which they will compensate for warming that the other industries are still doing. And since emissions from crops used in biomass burned for power and anaerobic digesters so beloved of Minister Ryan, they will be further compensating by having those emissions invisibly reported in the agricultural and LULUCF ledgers – giving energy companies an “emission free, clean, green, renewable energy” product for which they have a captive market and pricing they control. Meanwhile the farmer or forester who produced those crops has the emissions produced by the energy company credited to their farm.

In the interim, farmers and foresters are not, in any event, allowed to offset what they are actively removing against their emissions. Vague promises of plans to do this are interspersed with claims from various government sources that we don’t own our carbon credits anyway because they either don’t exist or if they do, the government owns them.

And every step of the way, while agriculture is being denied their removals, burdened with emissions from other industries that no one will ever mention, taking a massive hit to their industry for problems they aren’t creating and compensating for the sectors that are, they will still be vilified in the media for being the cause of it all.

Fair? I'm not certain it’s a word that Minister Ryan understands. And it’s not a narrative that I’m prepared to allow to stand without challenges any longer.

It is desirable and needed to wipe out every microgram of methane and carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. The same is not true for agriculture.

Eliminating (or reducing too much) all naturally produced methane would cause an ice age. Ironically, if we culled all of the cows on earth and then ran out of new fossil fuel sources of methane, we would cause an ice age. Balance is required here.

And if Minister Leddin is confused about the existence of a difference between biogenic methane and new methane from fossil fuel production (which seems to be a persistent issue for him) then he can just ask the question – which one of these methane production systems can be completely eliminated without killing most of the living beings on this earth?

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