2020 targets were ‘probably unrealistic’ – Varadkar

It probably wasn’t ever achievable for Irish agriculture to meet its emissions targets for 2020, according to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

Speaking to AgriLand presenter Claire McCormack in an interview recorded ahead of the National Ploughing Championships, the Taoiseach explained that the 2020 targets were “probably unrealistic” but stressed that Ireland’s 2030 targets are achievable and need to be met.

The Taoiseach was asked whether the 2020 target to reduce emissions by 20% on 2005 levels was ever achievable.

In response, Varadkar said: “I think it probably wasn’t to be honest; I know other countries managed to reduce their emissions by that much but Ireland is different on a number of counts.

“We’ve a very big agricultural sector; it accounts for 33% of our emissions – much more so than other countries – I think only New Zealand is in that space.

We had a very severe recession and it’s only now that we’re able to invest again in things like renewable energy and in the kind of technologies we need to be investing in, electrifying our railways for example, to reduce emissions.

The Taoiseach also noted that a number of other EU countries had “big, heavy, dirty industries” that they were able to shut down and because of that they were able to reduce their emissions.

“I think the targets that we signed up to by the previous government – not a government involving my party or the independents now in government – probably were unrealistic.

“But, we do need to make the 2030 ones, and I think that is possible and there is time to do that if we make the right decisions now.”

Climate change

Quizzed on the topic of climate change, the Taoiseach outlined that the agriculture sector needs to play its part in tackling climate change the same as every sector.

Commenting on what have been very harsh weather conditions throughout the past year, Varadkar said: “That may well itself be linked to climate change – so agriculture and farmers have a responsibility and a part to play in tacking climate change and also need to be part of that effort as well.

Because climate change could really damage Irish agriculture.

“Obviously the transport sector and the energy sector have to play their part too and I think there are certainly things we can do in Irish agriculture.”

The Taoiseach noted that emissions are slightly lower than they were in 1990, though acknowledged that they have been going up in the last couple of years.

He said that schemes such as the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) are making a difference and said that he believes afforestation can make a difference in the future.

“We’d particularly like to see more farmers foresting some of their land.”

Asked whether agriculture has been unfairly targeted from some quarters over the issue of emissions, Varadkar said he does think some of it has been unfair.

Decoupling in agri emissions

“I often think that people perhaps don’t fully appreciate that, if we weren’t producing milk in Ireland, if we weren’t producing beef in Ireland, that in reality that production would be displaced to other countries – and those countries are less carbon-efficient than we are.

If you take dairy for example – even though there has been an increase in emissions from dairy – it’s less than the increase in production; so there has been a decoupling of production from emissions.

“I think some of it has been misunderstood by a lot of people because we do need to produce food – not only for the domestic market but also for export – and we could drastically reduce emissions by reducing production. But that would just move elsewhere in the world and probably do more damage to the environment.”

On the question of whether Irish farmers should continue to aim for food targets under Food Wise 2025 in spite of emission concerns, the country’s leader said that they should – if done in a sustainable manner.

“I think we’re going to have to find a way to square that circle to continue to produce food – food for Ireland and food for exports abroad while doing it in an environmentally sustainable way.

Putting Ireland ‘back on track’

“But there are some big decisions that we have made as a Government that will put us back on track when it comes to climate change.

The Taoiseach highlighted that it has been decided in 2025 for Ireland to take coal out of power generation, which would make Ireland one of the first countries in the world to do so.

“By 2030, if not before, we’ll take peat out of power generation; that’ll make a big difference too and in Project Ireland 2040, the biggest single chunk of investment is actually in climate change and in retrofitting our public buildings and homes to make them more fuel efficient.

“So, a lot of things will happen over the next couple of years that I think will put us back on track.”

Varadkar outlined that he believes expansion in Irish dairy is sustainable going forward.

He explained: “I know it’s been a difficult year for a lot of farmers but I think, medium-term, dairy is one of the areas we can actually do very well and there’s huge demand for dairy products.

“You see in China for example the enormous demand that there is as well so I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from making that investment but do it eyes open.”

Carbon taxes

Asked about a potential carbon tax on agriculture, Varadkar said that there would not be an agriculture-specific carbon tax as of yet.

“We have a carbon tax already, as you know, but we’re not proposing one specifically for agriculture – but if we are going to meet those carbon emission targets by 2030, carbon taxes are going to have to be part of the picture.

Not on agriculture, but certainly on fuel for example – on energy, and that’s not something that we made a decision on for this budget.

“But, it is going to have to be part of how we achieve our objectives when it comes to climate change: Tax, regulation and technology.

“And again it’s in our interests – no one likes taxes. I certainly don’t, but it’d be very much against our interests as a country if we weren’t to do our part to slow down climate change, because of the very severe impact that it could have on us, and we’ve had a taste of that I think in the past year,” the Taoiseach said.