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‘Climate change targets will require a reduction in livestock numbers’ says leading expert

The only way agriculture can meet the targets set out in the Climate Action Bill is through a dramatic reduction in livestock numbers, Professor John FitzGerald has warned.

he former chair of the Irish Government’s Climate Change Advisory Council was speaking at the Goldsmith International Literary Festival over the weekend. Professor FitzGerald said the Climate Advisory Board recommended last year that there should be a separate target for methane as it is a short-lived gas.

However, he said the Climate Bill, which is currently going through the Dáil with broad support, does not do this. The bill, he said, requires Ireland to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, including methane, by 51pc by 2030.

He explained the energy sector, the second-largest source of emissions in Ireland wouldn’t be able to cut its emissions by two-thirds over this period. He claimed this would mean agriculture would have to cut its emissions by ‘40 or 50pc’ by 2030.

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“The only way that can happen is through a dramatic reduction in livestock numbers,” he said, adding that such an outcome would be “unnecessary”, “extremely expensive” and have knock-on impacts for the rest of the economy.

Professor FitzGerald also said there had been a failure to tackle the administrative obstacles to farming carbon through forestry, describing it as a “serious problem for the Government”.

“The licensing regime makes it exceedingly difficult for farmers. People don’t realise the long-term value of planting trees. If we plant 8,000ha of trees a year out to 2050, the carbon on those trees would be worth €18bn or €600m a year.

“Public policy and the CAP reform, possibly with additional funding, need to persuade farmers that there are more profitable ways of using some of their land, not the bulk of their land, which can benefit farmers and benefit the climate as well.”

But he said that would take innovation, as for older farmers who have worked with cattle all their lives becoming a forester is not something that is going to happen.

“We do need to see innovation and a change in direction but not a revolution in agriculture.” He said the level of tree planting would need to be in the region of 8,000ha a year, and if every farmer planted two or three hectares, that would be enough to suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

Despite this, he said it is going to be a difficult period for farmers over the coming decades.

“Teagasc have identified a range of different measures, which could possibly reduce emissions by about 10pc, but I think that there will need to be a reduction in livestock numbers,” he said.

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