Agriculture, the Commons and Climate Justice

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24th June 2020

Is County Leitrim really as “green” as it seems? That was the question we sought to answer with a team of young European researchers who spent six months working to produce the first Irish county-based carbon inventory report of its kind, published last December by Good Energies Alliance Ireland.

The study coincided with Phase 1 of a three-pronged initiative branded Cróga, the Irish word for “brave”, and acronym for “Carbon Resilient Opportunities for Generations Ahead”. In Phase 2, we initiated climate dialogue sessions to catalyse the local community in defining a bottom-up climate action plan. Phase 3 will involve implementing that plan and even replicating it elsewhere.

Why undertake in such an exercise for a county that is peripheral and small in addressing a topic that is bigger than any nation-state? Because the climate and biodiversity crisis will continue to be perceived as distant threats if communities do not have ownership of what is at stake. Grassroots movements fail if the underlying challenge doesn’t become part of the living fibre of the community.

Cròga started with science and numbers. Thanks to the meticulous science of carbon accounting, we found that Leitrim has an annual carbon deficit of about 225,000 tonnes. This means that, each year, activities in Leitrim release into the atmosphere 225,000 tons more than local carbon sinks can absorb. In other words, Leitrim exceeds its “carbon budget” by 52%.

Those tons stack up, year after year, building up Leitrim’s carbon debt and, since air-borne molecules know no borders, contribute to the global carbon debt. If carbon was a currency, the world would be bankrupt. But industrialised countries continue to borrow on debt — the recipe for a crash.

Going back to Leitrim, let’s have a look at this infographic:

Figure 1: Leitrim carbon inventory
Source: GEAI (2019)

Agriculture is the heavyweight in absolute terms, but when we compare sector-by-sector unit-based emissions against the national average, it’s actually transport and housing that are off the scale (+21% and +27% respectively), mainly due to the predominance of polluting vehicles, the low energy efficiency of our building stock and low-grade fuels. So that’s where the big cuts need to happen.

Ireland is a unique in the European landscape when it comes to agriculture’s share of carbon emissions, accounting for 33% of the national total, compared to an EU average of 10%.* Furthermore, the two greenhouse gases it produces, methane and nitrous oxide, are much more potent in terms of heat-trapping power than carbon dioxide. Hence, any serious climate policy has to deal with this. †

But will the reduction effort, or burden, be shared equally across the country? That’s a different story.

There is gradient of farming intensity running across Ireland, and emissions levels mirror that. We have a precise figure only for Leitrim, but we can reconstruct other counties’ emissions by looking at farming intensity in terms of livestock units per hectare (LSU/ha) as a proxy for farm-gate emissions, and from this data to sketch an emissions map. ‡

Figure 2: Estimate of livestock farming emissions by county [ktCO2eq/year]
Source: GEAI elaboration based on CSO end EPA data (2020)

Not surprisingly, emissions cluster where intensive beef production and big dairy herds occur. §

Farming intensity in Leitrim is 0.61 (LSU/ha), with less than an adult cow per hectare — the lowest in Ireland — while the threshold for defining non-intensive farming is 1. Most farms in the North-West qualify as as High Nature Value because they are managed in a way that sustains the richness of local wildlife (plants and animals), while curbing flood hazard, purifying water and soil and storing carbon. HNV farmers not only produce good and proximate food, but maintain and enhance the ecological balance. They are guardians of natural functions and cycles.

Figure 3: Leitrim farming climate impact in numbers
Source: GEAI (2019)

This ecological work is not reflected in farmers’ income, which in the North-West is four times less that of a farmer in the South. Neither are the sustainable practices of High Nature Value farming incentivised by institutional programmes. The following two maps depict this distorted reality.

That is the typical case of what environmental economists refer to as “positive externalities”. It is a problem of undervaluing the commons that cannot be directly bought or sold, but provide wide social benefits. The worth of pristine groundwater sources, pollinator insects, native seeds, old-growth forests should reflect their intrinsic value plus the value of their service to society. And when the commons’ sustainability depends on the work of someone, that should be remunerated too.

We all know that severe weather events, soil and water pollution and biodiversity loss cost public and private money, determine failures of entitlements, and destroy livelihoods. The work of averting those undesirable consequences should be assigned a value that’s obvious, rather than hidden. That is why farmers should receive a compensation for taking care of commons.

Building a new paradigm for agriculture climate policy

Reducing emissions is ultimately a matter of equality. It matters how targets are set and where they are distributed.|| When ecological services are not adequately valued, disparities ensue, leading to ineffective or harmful policies and market biases. Further lowering of non-intensive farming activities will lead to collapse of ecological functions and impoverishment of local farmers.

The measures indicated by Teagasc in the MACC ¶ to reduce agriculture emissions are not ambitious enough, effectively retaining the status quo. A brave climate policy for agriculture would shift the old paradigm, possibly exploring innovative solutions like intra-sector “cap & share” themes and results-based transfers for multifunctional achievements.

Climate justice is about empowering communities to be the agents of their own resiliency. The resiliency of a community is intimately connected with the good governance of commons for the highest shared benefit. Farmers are the custodians of many commons and their work should be acknowledged and rewarded by government policies and by the market. **

Article written by Nicoló G. Tria, GEAI volunteer and researcher,


* The ETS sectors are:energy generation; heavy industries, like steel and concrete-manufacturing; and aviation. Agriculture, with the housing sector and transport, are the three sectors that do not participate in the European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). Ireland’s emissions are so polarised by agriculture that this pushes the relative weight of non-ETS sectors above EU average.

† 28 and 256 times more, respectively, according to their Global Warming Potential (GWP) over a 100 years time horizon. GWP only capturesthe instantaneous heat-trapping power and downplays the dynamic effect. The proposed GWP* factors in the time variable, making it much more accurate when the concern is the cumulative level of emissionsover a period.

‡ Of course,livestock intensity is not the only driver of agriculture GHGs emissions, but it is the one that has the biggest impact. Differences in emission factors between animal speciesare to be taken into account too, as the practice of extensive tillage which requires more fertilisers.

§ Traditionally, intensive systems are clustered in the South and South-East.Cavan is an exception, but it has intensive pig farms that crank up the level. However, pigs emission factors are lowin terms of direct methane emissions, but quite substantial in terms of manure emissions, so the net effect may be slightly lower. Adjusting for the emissions factor will harmonise the data. Farming intensity is also a driver of other farm-born environmental threats, like nitrogen pollution.

|| According to the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities,established at the UNEarth Summitin Riode Janeiro in 1992, areas withhigher historical contribution to global emissions should undertake the biggesteffort in abating them.

¶ Marginal Abatement Cost Curve.

** To know more about the relationship between commons, climatejustice, and the cap & share system, check Justin Kenrick, “The Climate and The Commons”,in Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society;Feasta, 2012; Dublin.

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