Calls for farmer tax on agri-emissions slammed by Fitzmaurice

Calls for farmers to pay for greenhouse gas emissions produced by on-farm activities have been heavily criticised by Independent TD, Michael Fitzmaurice.

Yesterday, the Citizens’ Assembly met in Malahide, Co. Dublin, for a second weekend, to consider how Ireland can adopt policies to become a global leader on climate change.

(The Citizens’ Assembly is a body of 99 citizens, chosen to be broadly representative of the state’s population, formed to deliberate on key issues in the Constitution.)

This weekend’s discussions are particularly focused on the carbon footprint of the agriculture and transport sectors.

During presentations, a strong case was made for individual farmers to be taxed for on-farm carbon emissions, in an effort to reach EU emission reduction targets over the next three decades.

Alan Matthews, professor (emeritus) of European agricultural policy at Trinity College Dublin, told the assembly that agricultural emissions can be reduced through: improved grassland management; improved feed efficiency; improved genetics; improved animal health; and greater use of no-till and cover crops.

However, he warned that improving efficiency alone is “not going to be enough” to reach the state’s projected 2035 target of 30% lower agriculture and transport emissions, than its 2005 levels .

“When you improve efficiency – and improve profitability on the farm as a result – that makes these activities more attractive, so you have a rebound effect.

“The Beef Data and Genomics Programme is designed to improve the genetic merit of the suckler cow herd; however, farmers get paid in order to participate in the scheme.

“On one hand we are saving emissions over time because of improved efficiency; but, on the other, we are paying farmers to keep those animals; which means we have more animals,” he said.

While discussing the 1,200 public submissions the assembly recently received on climate change action, Prof. Matthews noted the strong view that climate policy “must not hinder” emission efficiency food produced in Ireland. However, calls were also made for the national herd size not be expanded, while others openly sought for the national herd to be reduced.

“My view is that we should not privilege agricultural emissions by exempting them from disciplines that apply in other sectors. Nor should we penalise them.

He said “the sensible approach” is to try to make the carbon emissions reduction in “the most cost-effective” way.

“The problem is, the costs associated with greenhouse gas emissions in agricultural production are not taken into account by farmers when deciding how much to reduce. In my view that is not right.

The most practical way to send a signal to reflect that cost is through some kind of charge, or levy, or tax on carbon emissions. It should be the same across the whole economy.

“Conversely if a farm is sequestering carbon; if we are actually pulling carbon out of the atmosphere; farmers should get a reward for that activity because it has equal value,” said Prof. Matthews.

Speaking after the assembly presentations, Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway, Michael Fitzmaurice, said he had listened to the controversial suggestion “with disbelief”.

“Such an action would impact seriously on the price of food; which would in turn have major implications for the entire economy – particularly the less well off members of our society.

If this daft proposal were to become a reality, farmers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet as it is, will have to receive higher prices for their produce. That will increase the price of food across the board.

“A lot of the changes proposed may be workable in cities and larger towns; but I would ask the members of the Citizens’ Assembly to come down to rural Ireland and look at the situation on the ground. Maybe then they might have a different view,” he said.

This afternoon, members of the Citizens’ Assembly will vote by secret ballot on the climate action recommendations to be submitted to the Oireachtas.