Agriculture & Climate Change
Climate Change, caused by global warming due to increased levels of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, is recognised as one of the most serious issues facing the world today. The EU, including Ireland, remains committed to playing its part in mitigation of climate change by substantially reducing the levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the short, medium and long term. Efforts to reduce emissions are of relevance to the agriculture sector because the natural processes associated with food production result in emissions of some greenhouse gases, particularly methane and nitrous oxide. Ireland has targets to meet under the Kyoto Protocol and EU unilateral efforts to reduce emissions.
In addition to being a contributor to GHG emissions and global warming, agriculture will also be impacted by climate change. Agriculture systems worldwide have developed under relatively stable climatic conditions. While different regions will be impacted on differently, the projections are that increasing global temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, extreme events like floods, droughts and heatwaves, etc will put pressure on the worldwide capacity to produce food. It is therefore very important to try and stabilise the concentration of GHG in the atmosphere so as to ensure that food production is not threatened. For agriculture, adaptation to climate change is vital.
Greenhouse gas emissions from the agriculture sector
Emissions of greenhouse gases from Ireland's agriculture sector arise mainly as a result of natural processes. The main gases are:
- Methane from ruminants from the breakdown of plant material, by diverse rumen flora, during the digestion process, this is a symbiotic relationship which has developed over several millions of years and enables the animals to convert inedible plant material, like grass, to nutritious human food.
- Methane from stored manure: this is again a natural process resulting from the anaerobic digestion of animal excreta.
- Nitrous oxide from soils: mainly arising from the natural processes of the nitrogen cycle which occur when animal manures and artificial nitrogen are placed on the soil as crop fertilisers.
In addition farm combustion of fuels releases carbon dioxide, and precursors of nitrous oxide. This represents about 5% of the total emission from the sector.
Mitigating GHG emissions from the agriculture sector
Overall the ambition is to reduce global GHG emissions by 50% by 2050. From a global agricultural perspective, it is difficult to reduce total emissions as a rising global population, standing at almost seven billion people today and predicted to rise to over nine billion by 2050, will increase the demand for food. Globally there is also a trend to increase consumption of nutritionally valuable dairy and meat products. This trend is particularly evident in developing countries. With an increase in food output it is likely that global GHG emissions associated with food production will increase. However, mitigation of emissions in the sector is possible and must be pursued if the internationally agreed ambition of keeping the global temperature increase to less than 2°C is to be realised. This mitigation can be achieved by improving the productivity and efficiency of food production systems.
Ireland is recognised as having one of the most technologically advanced and carbon efficient food production systems in the world. This arises because of long standing and well developed agricultural research and farm advisory systems that have ensured the development of best practice and the transfer and implementation of these practices at farm level. In addition our predominant reliance on rain fed, grass based milk, beef and lamb production systems means that these products are net contributors to the overall food production.
Trends in GHG emissions from the Irish agriculture sector
The agriculture sector accounted for 32.6% of Ireland's total national emissions in 2013 and this is amongst the highest of any country in the developed world. This arises partly because Ireland does not have a large industrial base but also because we produce for export several times more dairy and meat products than our own requirement. Consequently, Ireland is a significant contributor to the world requirement for these nutritionally valuable products.
The emissions from Irish agriculture are lower now than they were in 1990 - the reference year against which targets are set, when the sector accounted for 34% of national emissions. This has occurred while maintaining output of the major products - meat, milk and cereals reflecting an improvement in efficiency. In the coming years Irish food output will increase further, in line with the targets set out in Food Harvest 2020. Even with these increases in food output, greenhouse gas emissions from the sector are projected to be still below the 1990 levels. The achievement of increased output without a similar increase in GHG emissions represents a further improvement in the efficiency of the sector in Ireland. Agricultural scientists continue the search for further mitigation measures. However, with current knowledge, the extent to which the sector can further cost effectively, mitigate emissions, is limited to about 4% compared to business as usual. This potential is broadly similar to that which has been identified in several international studies - there is no silver bullet to rapidly reduce emissions associated with food production!
The role of carbon sequestration in mitigating emissions: soil management and forestry
While food production, arising from the use of agricultural land, gives rise to greenhouse gas emissions, good soil management can lead to the extraction of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and its long term storage in the soil - carbon sequestration. In particular, well managed grassland soils, the predominant land use in Ireland are effective at sequestering carbon. Scientific measurements in Ireland have shown that this sequestration process cancels out much of the emissions associated with food production. In addition, planting of new forests and good forest management further mitigate emissions from the use of land for food production. Ireland has a programme in place, supported by the Department to increase the planting of new forests.
The Role of the Department
The Department will lead the sector in confronting the climate change challenge and in doing so, will continue to develop a vibrant, sustainable, agri-food sector, while continuing to play its part in reducing Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions. It will also play a part in seeking a global solution that ensures world production of sufficient food to meet the needs of a growing population and that agriculture plays its part mitigating climate change. In this regard the Department sees Ireland's participation in international research initiatives such as the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Emissions and the EU wide Joint Programming Initiative on Food Security, Agriculture and Climate Change and the Global Alliance on Climate Smart Agriculture along with continued funding of agricultural research in Ireland as very important in ensuring the sector contributes to climate change ambitions and ensuring that food production is not threatened.
Government Departments and Agencies:
Ireland in a Warmer World by The Community Climate Change Consortium for Ireland (C4i)
International Organisations & Bodies:
Other FAO Bodies: