EPA: significant “step change” needed for Irish agriculture

29 June 2021 

A significant step change is required for the agricultural sector as Ireland moves toward climate neutrality, the Committee on Climate Action heard today. 

Director of Environmental Sustainability at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Sharon Finnegan made the recommendation to the Committee shortly after stressing that on its current path, agriculture is set to account for 40 per cent of total Irish emissions by the end of the decade. 

All indicators show that the sector is headed down the wrong path according to Ms. Finnegan and that its growth is “happening at the expense of the environment, as evident by trends in emissions, water quality and biodiversity all going in the wrong direction.” 

“Business as usual scenarios will not reverse these trends. New measures must go beyond improving efficiencies by focusing on reducing total emissions by breaking the link between animal numbers, fertiliser use and deteriorated water quality,” she told the Committee. 

The agency has recently stressed that in order for Ireland to become a climate resilient society and economy systemic change is needed and that climate change, biodiversity, water and air quality must all be dealt with through interwoven policy approaches. 

Agriculture is a source of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is produced from cattle. Although it is ultimately shorter lived than carbon, Its warming potential is around 80 times greater than carbon in a twenty-year period. 

Methane is responsible for 65 per cent of total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions while nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas, accounts for 30 per cent of that figure. Carbon dioxide makes up the remaining 5 per cent, according to the EPA. 

Farmers and Members of Extinction Rebellion protest before the Department of Agriculture June 2021 photo: Kayle Crosson

Agricultural emissions in Ireland 

According to the latest available EPA data, agriculture now accounts for 35 per cent of total emissions. 

The trend sets Ireland out as a European outlier, given that member states’ agricultural emissions average out at 10 per cent. 

Emissions from agriculture were up by almost half a per cent in 2020 from the preceding year, while emissions across the country declined by 6 per cent largely due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The cattle population also grew by 1.5 per cent when comparing June 2020 to June 2019, with an increase of 4.2 per cent population in the dairy herd. 

The total amount of dairy cows in Ireland have increased steadily for the past nine years, and between 2014 and 2019 their population increased by almost a quarter while milk production rose by 41 per cent. 

The EPA has previously attributed the Food Wise 2025 Strategy and the 2015 removal of dairy quotas being critical to the industry’s growth. 

About the Author

Kayle Crosson