Rethinking Ireland’s agriculture

sarahopinionsDuring my stay in Ireland, I’ve been effectively immersed in Irish culture, but above all, I have come to appreciate the amazing dairy products Ireland produces. Ireland, a dairy- and meat-heavy country, is akin to a wonderland for the unabashed foodie. However, the environmental consequences of Ireland’s agriculture industry, which accounts for the lion share of the country’s GDP, necessarily contributes to the warming global atmosphere and sets Ireland behind its goal to cut emissions by 20 percent between 2005 and 2020. Currently, Ireland is on track to reduce its emissions by only three percent by 2020, and this is compounded by last year’s Paris Climate Conference Agreement, COP21.

The goal of COP21, agreed upon around this time last year, is to keep “the increase in global average temperature to well below two degrees Celsius” and to limit the rise in temperature to one and a half degrees Celsius. It is estimated that an increase in global temperature above one and a half degrees Celsius would do severe damage to existing ecosystems. Most countries that entered COP21 submitted a climate action plan outlining their country’s plan to reduce their respective carbon emissions. However, these plans can only be considered a launch pad from which countries change their respective infrastructures and practices to limit the warming of the earth.

Everyone is feeling the strain of cutting carbon emissions, and the U.S. is already off track to meet the necessary limits COP21 outlines. Ireland, too, is falling behind. It is looking as though Ireland will have to dramatically rethink its agriculture industry, despite the fact that Ireland touts itself as a model for sustainable farming. In all likelihood, Ireland will be unable to meet the reduced emissions required by COP21, and as a result, the country may face costly carbon credits, which would add to the financial strain Ireland will feel from having to reconfigure its agriculture industry. While I condone carbon credits, this is a unique situation where both sides of the issue seem to have struck a logical impasse.

To put numbers to the situation, Ireland’s foremost cause for carbon emissions is the agriculture industry at 45 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. Sliding into second place is Ireland’s transportation sector, which accounts for 30 percent of the country’s carbon emissions. Forty-five percent of carbon emissions from one area of production does indeed sound steep; however, Ireland is in a unique situation, because rather than the carbon emissions coming from unsustainable farming practices, most emissions come from the national herd of cattle and sheep that emits methane gas.

Fortunately, all hope is not lost for Ireland and its economy. In the next 15 years, over which the COP21 agreement stretches, the EU countries will be collectively lowering emissions, meaning efforts to reduce emissions will be shared. While it is not necessarily equitable for Ireland to do less to reduce emissions than its neighboring EU countries, the fact that the EU is collectively sharing efforts to reduce emissions means that Ireland may not be stuck with such strict environmental regulations as it would otherwise have been forced to meet. In accordance with Ireland’s dependence on its agriculture, Article 2 of COP21 ensures that Ireland’s food production will be secure. It guarantees that countries will continue “increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production.” Though Ireland will almost certainly have to rethink its approach to agriculture in the future, or find an alternative to agriculture that would not detriment the economy, the assurance that at least some of the agriculture industry will survive is somewhat heartening.

Here, I would typically recommend a possible solution, even if it were relatively out of reach. However, Ireland is very much an island, and the agriculture industry is one of the highest contributors to its GDP. In essence, Ireland relies on agriculture because there is no other commodity in significant enough quantity or quality that could replace their built-up and renowned agriculture sector. While Ireland will necessarily rethink the majority of its emissions coming from agriculture, it should also closely examine its emissions from the transportation sector. A better established public transportation system and investment in cleaner energy, such as hydropower, could cut transportation emissions. It is perhaps not plausible to say that this transition will not be difficult or even cost-effective in the short-term—it will be difficult and fraught with anxiety. But, in the long run, Ireland—and the EU, by extension— will be better off for the transition to clean energy and energy-efficient infrastructure.


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