As the largest contributor to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture is a key sector to decarbonise and improve its wider sustainability, says Annie Donegan, Consultant at KPMG Sustainable Futures.
While the decarbonisation of agriculture is critical to achieving our national climate targets, the sector is also uniquely positioned to deliver a number of environmental benefits, particularly in relation to enhanced biodiversity and water quality.
Agriculture and climate action
Agriculture currently accounts for just over 35% of Ireland’s total GHG emissions – with over 80% of agriculture-related GHG emissions linked to livestock numbers and manure management. In terms of wider environmental impacts, agriculture is pinned as a significant contributor to the decline in Ireland’s water quality and is also identified as one of the main pressures on our protected habitats and species.
Furthermore, given its reliance on a stable and predictable climate, the sector is also at risk from the impact of climate change and must strengthen its resilience to expected changes such as wetter winters, drier summers and more frequent extreme weather events. Aside from these impacts, the sector also has a key opportunity in relation to climate mitigation through enhancing the carbon sink potential of its land.
Agriculture in the Climate Action Plan
There is a strong policy focus at both an EU and national level to strengthen the development of a sustainable food system. At an EU level, the Green Deal’s Farm to Fork Strategy is the Commission’s plan to make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly. This is strengthened at a national level with Food Vision 2030, which has an ambition for Ireland to become a world leader in sustainable food systems. The strategy has four core missions covering the themes of climate, resilience and well-being, safety and nutrition, and innovation. The overarching aims of these strategies align with the Government’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) 2021 for agriculture.
The CAP includes a number of targets for the agriculture sector to implement in order to contribute to our national climate goals. The key targets called out in the CAP are summarised below.
- Commit to core and further measures to reduce emissions from 23 to 16-18 MtCO2eq in 2030
- Work with the waste sector in the provision of feedstocks, to contribute to the production of 1.6 TWh per annum of indigenous sustainably produced biomethane for injection into the gas grid by 2030
- Undertake a programme of work to refine the potential and to set targets/pathways for measures to deliver further emissions reductions:
- Carry out a diversification review based on Land Use Review findings
- Enable a carbon farming framework by the end of 2023 in line with EU activity
- Explore the potential for methane reducing feed additives for pasture-based solutions
- Enhanced reductions from further and earlier implementation of actions already identified
In order to achieve these targets, the CAP sets out 41 actions for the sector covering areas such as decarbonisation, efficiency, diversification, innovation and carbon farming. Acknowledging the significant footprint of the livestock sector, the CAP explicitly calls out that policies must recognise the “direct correlation between the animal numbers, production and GHG emissions” noting that the benefits from improved efficiencies and technologies can be undermined by growing emissions from herd size. As such, the CAP includes several actions targeting the decarbonisation of dairy and beef, such as improved breeding, development of novel feed additives for biogenic methane inhibition, reducing the average age of slaughter and improved animal health and welfare. Outside of livestock-related measures, the CAP calls for a reduction in chemical nitrogen use, increased use of leguminous crops to fix nitrogen and increased organic farming.
Ultimately, the achievement of these targets will necessitate research and innovation, accelerated adoption of best practice and partnerships across the agri-food sector.
What does this mean for farmers and the agri-food sector?
While the actions outlined in the CAP will be challenging to meet, they also provide an opportunity for Ireland to strengthen its existing reputation as a high-quality, sustainable food producer. In terms of readiness, KPMG surveys have found a lack of preparedness for the expected changes to Irish agriculture – with 50% of respondents without a plan to reduce emissions. For farmers, decarbonisation will require disruptive change but will also reward those who embrace this change through policy e.g. via CAP eco-scheme payments, through the market e.g. growing demand for sustainably produced, low-carbon products, and through efficiency gains e.g. low hanging fruit measures that reduce emissions and costs on farms.
For agri-food businesses, support and incentivisation for farmers to implement effective mitigation and adaptation measures will be key. Taking a value-chain approach, agri-food businesses can focus on ‘insetting’ i.e. supply chain decarbonisation. This will both encourage positive change at a farm level and will enable businesses to demonstrate effective action to customers and consumers through carbon labelling, for example. KPMG research indicates that consumers of the future are expected to have a willingness to pay a premium for low carbon products, including foodstuffs.
As agriculture is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, agri-food businesses should improve their understanding of their exposure to climate-related risks. The recommendations from the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures provides a framework for climate-related financial disclosures. Understanding these risks can help businesses to effectively plan, prepare and adapt to climate change.
To conclude, the transition to net zero will require deep transformative change across government, sectors and actors alike. Agriculture has its role to play in meeting our climate obligations and while the required interventions are challenging, they bring with them new opportunities for innovation, diversification and efficiency. For further information, KPMG has published its Agri-Food 2030 report highlighting how the sector can grasp the opportunities offered by the transition to net zero.