Emissions debate: What size is the Government’s aviation footprint?

Irish livestock production has come under severe scrutiny in recent months in relation to the sector’s role in contributing to the country’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Ireland’s national policy position is to reduce CO2 emissions in 2050 by 80% on 1990 levels across the energy generation, environment and transport sectors, with a goal of achieving “climate neutrality” in the agriculture and land-use sector.

As it stands, Ireland’s 2017 emissions from the transport, energy and residential sectors have decreased; however, emissions from the agriculture, commercial and public services sectors are described by the the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “heading in the wrong direction”.

The EPA is responsible for compiling and reporting data on Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions to the relevant European and international institutions.

At a national level, emission reductions have been recorded in seven of the last 10 years; however, two of the last three years have seen large increases in emissions, according to EPA’s report on Ireland’s Provisional Greenhouse Gas Emissions 1990-2017.

While agriculture remains the single largest contributor to overall emissions at 33.3% of the total; the country’s transport and energy industries are the second and third largest contributors at 19.8% and 19.3%, respectively.

The EPA has stated that the most significant drivers for the increased emissions in agriculture between 2016 and 2017 (+2.9%) are higher dairy cow numbers (+3.1%) and an increase in milk production of 9.2%.

It states that, in the last five years, dairy cow numbers have increased by 26.1% and corresponding milk production by 38.8% – reflecting national plans to expand milk production under Food Wise 2025 and the removal of the milk quota in 2015.

In 2017, there were also increased CO2 emissions from synthetic fertiliser application on agricultural soils (+10.3%).

Other cattle, pig and sheep numbers increased by 1.6%, 1.6% and 7.2%, respectively. Total fossil fuel consumption in agriculture/forestry/fishing activities also increased by 5.2% in 2017.

Transport emissions

However, before the finger remains firmly pointed at agriculture, it is worth considering that while transport emissions decreased by 2.4% in 2017 – this came on the back of four successive years of emission increases in the transport sector.

In fact, between 1990 and 2017, transport shows the greatest overall increase in GHG emissions at 133.2%, with road transport increasing by 140%.

On the flip side, emissions from agriculture peaked in 1998 and have decreased to below their 1990 levels since 2002 – reflecting long-term decline in livestock populations and in fertiliser use due to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Emissions from agriculture in 2017 are now 0.7% below 1990 levels; however, they have increased for five out of the last six years.

These hard, cold facts from the EPA are proof that while agriculture still has a ways to go to further reduce carbon footprint; farmers and the agri industry are dutifully and collectively working to combat the issue – which is a challenging and complex task for all the agri-food sectors.

However, ill-advised comments – such as those recently made by the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar about his intention to reduce his meat intake “for health and climate” reasons – certainly don’t help to bolster farmer conviction.

Days after these remarks farming was back in the firing line as two controversial reports from the Lancet Scientific Journal targeted the “over-consumption” of red meat globally and called for an “axing of subsidies” on livestock production in order to reduce methane emissions from agriculture.

Such talking points certainly don’t help to boost morale among the farming community – particularly at a time when not only climate change, but historically low beef prices, reduced numbers of young farmers and the possibility of a hard (no-deal) Brexit, all pose exponential risks to the future of Irish farming.

Government air miles

While addressing reporters the Taoiseach also acknowledged that he is not the best advocate for climate change due to the amount he must travel in his role as the leader of the country.

“I am trying to eat less meat both for health reasons and reasons of climate change. But I’d imagine, given the amount of travel I do, I’m not the best example,” he said.

In light of these remarks, AgriLand decided to examine the aviation footprint of all the current Cabinet ministers.

According to the European Commission, aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, with direct emissions from aviation accounting for about 3% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 2% of global emissions.

Although the EU is taking action to reduce aviation emissions in Europe, it is worth noting that someone flying from Dublin to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for an entire year.

Over the 11-month period between January and November 2018, this publication can reveal that a combined 239 flights were taken by ministers of various departments.

Many, though not all, of these flights were return flights – doubling the emissions – and to every corner of the world, from San Francisco in the US, to Hong Kong and Beijing on the far side of the globe.

Naturally, in light of Brexit negotiations and Ireland’s membership of the EU, Brussels was one of the most frequented destinations by Irish ministers over the last year.

The Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure, Paschal Donohoe, used the Government’s Learjet seven times to attend meetings at the European corridors of power.

Meanwhile, the Taoiseach used the Government jet six times, with the Tanaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney, using the aircraft three times – all return.

According to MyClimate.org –  a Swiss Non-​Profit Organisation that advocates for local and global climate protection – a round trip for one person to Brussels from Dublin in business class releases the equivalent of 506kg/CO2.

Therefore the combined 16 flights used by the three ministers accounted for an estimated total of eight tonnes of CO2 going by the given figures.

By comparison, in 2015, Irish agriculture in total accounted for 19.8 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

‘Planes should be grounded’

According to the European Commission, by 2020, global international aviation emissions are projected to be around 70% higher than in 2005 and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) forecasts that by 2050 they could grow by a further 300-700%.

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice has raised repeated concerns over how rural indigenous industries – particularly agriculture and the peat industry – are being impacted by efforts to meet Ireland’s carbon emission reduction and renewable energy targets.

Also Read: Up to 430 job losses: BNM to cease peat production by 2028

“If you want to talk about this whole carbon situation in Ireland, and indeed the world, no one is talking about the amount of emissions that planes are putting out.

Some of these people want to get rid of all the livestock in Ireland and to cut down on this, that and the other – but why aren’t we talking about emissions from planes?

“We should ground them if we need to. Don’t be going on your holidays if that’s the case, if we’re doing so much damage,” said deputy Fitzmaurice, who represents the Galway-Roscommon constituency.