Ryan interview: Forestry ‘will balance emissions we won’t be able to reduce in agriculture’

Forestry “will balance some of the emissions we won’t be able to reduce in agriculture” according to Eamon Ryan, Minister for Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport.

Speaking to AgriLand today (Friday, October 2), the Green Party leader said that details of the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill will be announced “Tuesday or Wednesday” of next week (October 6 and 7), with the intention for it to be enacted by Christmas.

What this bill will entail for the agriculture sector was just one of a number of topics discussed during a broad-ranging interview at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment with AgriLand news editor Stella Meehan and news journalist Kathleen O’Sullivan.

The Programme for Government outlines an intention of reducing greenhouse emissions by an annual average of 7%. Will agriculture be expected to deliver on this 7% target? 

Minister Ryan: Part of the structure [of the bill] is that we look towards 2050 and the 2050 target is zero – carbon neutral – and that’s going to mean every section of society, every industry, every part of the economy.

But, it’ll vary across different sectors – some sectors you won’t be able to get completely zero. Agriculture will be the main one – but there are what they call [carbon] ‘sources and sinks’. 

Forestry would be a sink – we are able to store carbon there, so that will balance some of the emissions we won’t be able to reduce in agriculture.

The same in our bogs, in managing our wetlands, and so we’ll set that 2050 target, and then we’ll have three five-year plans which look at the immediate 15 years. Those five-year budgets will give a rough idea how fast each sector will go [in reaching the 2050 target].

Every sector will go at different speeds depending on what’s doable and how quickly they can make the change. There will be different timelines and different approaches in each sector, including agriculture.

Will methane from agriculture be treated differently in the bill?

Minister Ryan: No…well, in the sense that all greenhouse gases have to be taken into account because the threat to the environment is from all of them. You can’t say we’ll ignore one, methane, or biogenic methane. Now, it’s different in that it is short-lived, but actually when it comes to the end of its time as methane, it oxidises into carbon dioxide, it doesn’t disappear, it continues in that form.

So you can’t ignore it, you can’t exclude it. It is different though, because there are natural biogenic methane cycles and it is a more difficult one to change. Because the nature of farming isn’t as easy or quick to change, we aren’t going to get rid of all livestock, so we’re still going to have biogenic methane from our system.

The question is: How do we minimise it and how do we have the sinks that compensate for it in land use?

In managing biogenic methane and looking at the whole role of agriculture in this, it isn’t as if you just look at climate change on its own – you have to take into account that there are other things we need to do.

In that, the critical thing is the need for a national land use review and a plan.

That has various objectives you need to get right – the first is rural development, how [do] we get vibrant rural communities? How do we make sure we can get employment for young people to stay in rural Ireland?

And then, you’re looking at carbon and how do we store carbon, how do we manage greenhouse gas emissions – all of them – but you’re also looking at biodiversity.

We’ve a biodiversity crisis we have to address. We’re also looking at water pollution, we also have to address flooding, and we also have to address ammonia and nitrogen pollution. There are loads of different layers.

What we need to do in how we develop farming, is protect the Irish family farm – how do we guarantee a future for young farmers, also foresters and people managing our bogs and wildlife? It’s not just farming – farming is connected to all those different works.

The opportunity we have is that tackling one will tackle the other – tackling climate change will help tackle biodiversity, tackling climate change will help pay farmers, will help give an income, help give a future for Irish farming. 

How will adopting more environmentally-friendly practices in agriculture be made financially viable for farmers?

Minister Ryan: To make it viable for farmers, you reform CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] so that the payments go to those sort of [environmental] activities. You get a higher price for Origin Green, we concentrate on actually getting a higher price for the primary producer rather than doing the huge volume-selling to international commodity markets where the processor and the retailer make the money.

And that’s a switch we can make, and that’s going to be good for farming and the climate. You also lower the costs – so one of the ways we can improve water quality, reduce nitrogen pollution, reduce emissions, improve biodiversity, is not spending so much money on fertiliser.

Start using really smart farming practices around new SWRT [subsurface water retention technology] management; new grass management; new nutrient management; good soil quality management – so they don’t actually have to spend so much money on fertilisers, which is going to cause downstream problems right across the country and save that money too.

When I talk to the best agricultural scientists, they say that grassland management is what they’re working on and they think they can significantly decrease the amount of fertiliser being used and increase and improve animal health, outputs, everything the farmer will look to achieve.

A lot of the young farmers who are thinking about this are already doing it – there are a lot of really good practices evolving at the moment so this is not imposing something on Irish agriculture, it’s already coming up from agriculture, I can see it happening.

Stay tuned to AgriLand for further articles (on other pressing topics) from our extensive interview with Minister Ryan.