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The Citizens’ Assembly on Climate Change: 5 Key Questions on Climate Action in the Agriculture Sector

November 3 2017, 12:29pm

On the 4th and 5th of November, the Citizens’ Assembly will conclude a ground-breaking process in democratic decision-making on climate change. Following an inspiring initial meeting in October, the Assembly will return to the topic of ‘How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’.

The Assembly meeting includes a specific session on climate action in the agriculture sector. From our work on agriculture and climate change in Ireland, here are the 5 key questions that we often face:

 

  1. Is it enough for Ireland to focus on how efficiently our meat and dairy is produced in order to reduce polluting emissions?

 

How efficiently we produce is relevant but limiting the agriculture sector’s actions to efficiency is a very poor response to climate change and leaves Ireland very far from climate leadership.

In recent years, State agencies have kicked off a number of climate-related initiatives in the agriculture sector. These include a major focus on improving efficiency/productivity, in other words reducing the polluting emissions released per unit of meat/dairy.  Trying to improve carbon efficiency (or what’s also called ‘emissions intensity’) may be significant and worthwhile action BUT it’s not the whole story, it’s not Ireland’s key goal, and could actually result in increases in emissions:

  • Our climate obligations to reduce emissions under national, EU and international law are not made on the basis of efficiency, whether we’re talking about cattle, cream, coal or cars! The only game in town for Ireland and, all other states, is reducing our overall levels of polluting emissions.

  • At the heart of the Government’s agriculture strategy (Food Wise 2025) is a plan to significantly increase meat and dairy exports. This means producing and exporting more meat and dairy which will increase Ireland’s overall emissions, and efficiency gains will not yield anything close to the levels of mitigation required from agriculture.

  • While efficiency gains can bring benefits, such as cost-savings, these savings can easily end up being spent on more cattle and increasing production that in turn increases overall emissions!

  • And even when we look at the efficiency benchmark the picture is far from rosy: although industry have noted certain indicators which highlight Irish agriculture’s productivity, there is also significant research and analysis of Ireland’s production which points to Ireland’s climate inefficiency.

  1. Does increasing Irish meat/dairy production contribute to food security for the world’s poorest?

 

In a word – ‘No’. And in three words - ‘Not at all’!

  • Ireland has a proud reputation of humanitarian and development assistance. Irish NGOs, aid workers and diplomats have long sought to ensure that the poorest communities around the world receive the aid they need, improve production of local sustainable food and get access to local resources.  However, we shouldn’t confuse Irish exports with Irish aid and we shouldn’t confuse Ireland’s food production with developing countries’ food security.

  • Ireland’s emissions, including those from agriculture, are fuelling climate change that is resulting in more frequent and severe droughts and crop failures, undermining food security of the poorest, particularly in east Africa.

  • More food is not the same as less hunger. Food security is not simply about inadequate production of food; it's about access to local resources and nutritious food for all. Efforts to address global food security should focus on the real issue of supporting the majority of the world’s farmers who are small scale farmers who, for example, produce 70 per cent of Africa’s food supply.

  • Irish produce is not helping to ‘feed the world’. In net calorie terms Ireland is importing food rather than exporting it, enough to feed over a million people. The vast majority of Ireland’s production goes to other developed countries, mainly in Europe. While demand for meat and dairy is rising in developing countries, increasing Irish production does not help vulnerable communities whose food needs are either already insecure or whose ability to grow or access food is threatened by climate change.  And even when Irish exports do go to developing countries, they are expensive products aimed at the middle classes.

  1. Does the Paris Agreement include the need to protect food production? Does this mean that Ireland’s agriculture sector should not have to reduce emissions?

 

The impact of climate change on food is addressed in the Paris Agreement but there is no suggestion that agriculture, or any sector for that matter, should simply be given a free pass in reducing its polluting emissions!

  • The Paris Agreement includes high level goals which, importantly, are set out in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty. One of these is to respond to the threat of climate change by ‘[i]ncreasing the ability to adapt to […] adverse impacts […] and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production’.  [Article 2(1)(b)]

  • The Paris Agreement does not mention specific sectors when it talks about emissions reductions. It rather leaves it to states to address individual sectors. The Agreement sets out how states must prepare and update their national commitments and rapidly reduce emissions to achieve specific long-term goals.

  • Unsurprisingly, when it comes to food in the Paris Agreement, the priority is not about protecting meat and dairy exports from developed countries.  The Agreement is very clear -  the focus must be on those who do not have access to food, as well as on the severe effects of climate change on agriculture: it is noted in the explanatory preamble that in signing up to the Agreement, states ‘[r]ecogniz[e] the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change.

  1. Is it a case of either having a vibrant agricultural sector or taking action on climate change? Do we simply have to choose one or the other?

This type of false opposition is one of the most damaging interpretations of action on climate change in Ireland and must be left behind.

  • It has been suggested that the development of the rural economy (meat and dairy production in particular) must be balanced against the environmental objective of reducing emissions. This appeal to balance puts forward the false thinking that the development of Irish agriculture and climate action is a ‘zero-sum game’, and assumes emissions reductions and a resilient rural economy are inherently in conflict.

  • In order to achieve necessary emissions reductions and become a climate leader, Ireland should be charting a different course for agriculture, one which recognises the importance of diversification of production within a rural economy and supports the need for dietary change.

  • This should involve supporting farmers to transition away from intense ruminant production to more truly sustainable agriculture, recognising and working with Ireland’s unique cultural and ecological heritage to support High Nature Value farming.

  • The State also needs to take action on diet and food waste. Our appetite for meat and dairy is a major driver of climate change and global demand is continuing to rise. It isn’t the case that everyone simply has to become a vegetarian tomorrow! But governments must take greater action to ensure our diets are not so meat-intensive. Several international studies have outlined the major health, environmental and climate benefits of shifting diets away from animal-based food and guidance has been prepared for governments to support a change consumer habits. Ireland must also tackle how we produce, remove and recycle our food - approximately one third of all food produced for consumption in the world is lost or wasted, according to the FAO.’

  1. Can we simply plant more trees which will absorb our agricultural emissions?

Ireland has substantially less forested land than other EU Member States but increasing forestry is no silver bullet.

  • Ireland’s national climate goal for 2050 is set out in the 2014 National Policy Position. This document sets out that Ireland must deliver 1) an 80% reduction in combined emissions from electricity, buildings and transport and 2)  ‘an approach to carbon neutrality in the agriculture and land-use sector, including forestry, which does not compromise capacity for sustainable food production.’ This objective for agriculture means that Ireland is going to have to do more to expand and protect land (mainly forests but also restored peatlands) which can take in and hold emissions.

  • BUT it’s important to be clear that there’s no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to agricultural production - high levels of polluting emissions from increasing meat and dairy exports cannot simply be cancelled out (or ‘offset’) by more forests. Widespread afforestation also presents major threats to Ireland’s biodiversity, in the case where planted forests replace more diverse habitats.

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The Citizens’ Assembly is also discussing climate action in the transport sector.
Our website has 7 questions that we’d like to see the speakers answer, together with background information on the topic.

So what recommendations should the Citizens’ Assembly make to the Government?  In a joint submission the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition and the Environmental Pillar have put forward 18 practical recommendations that would (1) bring the years of inaction to an end, (2) move Ireland to the level of most of our EU partners, and (3) take a leadership role in certain areas, notwithstanding our poor record to date. They range across all sectors of the economy and society: energy, buildings, transport and agriculture.

Our press release also has further information, quotes and insights on the upcoming Assembly meeting.

Interested in more information on any of the above questions on agriculture? See the in-depth report ‘Not So Green: Debunking the Myths around Irish Agriculture’ produced by the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition and the Environmental Pillar.