Farming for a sustainable future: critical issues and land use choices

Farming for a sustainable future: critical issues and land use choices

Farming: a noble profession

Before preaching about the urgent need to reduce our agricultural emissions, it is important to acknowledge the existentially important but often thankless work that farmers do. Spending childhood summers helping out on my aunt’s mixed dairy-cropping farm in Switzerland forged an appreciation of the long-hours and hard labour involved in working the land and nurturing livestock. For most farmers, farming is more than a job; it is a way of life embedded within nature. Yet farming is becoming untenable for many family farmers. Incomes are too low, and farmers are having to run to stand still, producing ever more milk or beef just to maintain a basic income. Milk production has expanded by 66% over the past 10 years (CSO data). Farmers receive just 28-29 cent of the 75 to 90 cent per litre that consumers pay for milk, according to a recent study by the Irish Farmers’ Association. Meanwhile, agricultural policies and associated subsidy support has pulled farmers in different directions over the past decades, fostering suspicion of new policy initiatives within the sector. Change for better must involve farmers being rewarded for the work they do to provide a plethora of ecosystem services that we take for granted – beyond the critical service of providing food on our plate. Among those ecosystem services is “climate regulation” or “carbon farming”. Identifying pathways to carbon neutrality in the agriculture, forestry & other land use (AFOLU) sector is therefore an opportunity to fix some of what is broken in the food system and to revitalize rural communities.          

The challenge

Cattle production is the backbone of Irish agriculture. It utilizes land not well suited for crop cultivation to produce protein-rich food, making good use of the country’s prolific grass growth rates. However, no matter how well they are looked after, cattle give rise to a range of emissions that damage the environment, belching methane and excreting large quantities of nitrogen that causes air and water pollution. Consequently, Irish agriculture accounts for one third of national greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 90% of ammonia emissions, and bears a large responsibility for Ireland’s failure to comply with the Effort Sharing Decision and European Emissions Ceiling Directive. These failures could incur national fines of billions of euros. GHG emissions from transport, industry, domestic heating and power generation also need to be dramatically cut, and Ireland’s land use sector has a central role to play by providing a platform for renewable technologies along with biomass to support development of a low-carbon bioeconomy. How can these competing land uses be balanced to deliver on economic, social and environmental objectives? This is the central question being addressed through bioeconomic modelling in the SeQUEsTER project.

Pathways to “carbon neutrality”

SeQUEsTER was funded to chart potential pathways to “carbon neutrality” in Ireland’s AFOLU sector by 2050 and beyond, in line with government policy objectives. The first challenge was to define what “carbon neutrality” means in practice. A confusing array of terminology is used to define various climate policies, most of which share the overarching aim to stabilize the global climate at a temperature well within two degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels, as recently agreed in the Paris Agreement. Time and geographical boundaries and GHG accounting methodology all have an influence on the specific GHG emission profile that is equated to this aim. Numerous countries have adopted a policy target of “Net Zero GHG emissions” by 2050, based on current national GHG accounting protocols using the GWP100 metric. This metric aggregates various GHGs as carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent according to their respective warming effect over a 100-year time horizon after their release into the atmosphere. “Net Zero” represents a simple balance between all GHG emissions and sinks (e.g. CO2 uptake by soils and trees), expressed as CO2 equivalents. However, an alternative GHG aggregation metric, GWP*, has recently been proposed to better represent the dynamics of climate forcing, and thus climate stabilization, associated with trends in emissions of different GHGs through time. The particular implication of the GWP* approach is that climate stabilization could be achieved with relatively modest reductions in short-lived methane emissions, coupled with net zero emissions of other long-lived GHGs. Thus, applying GWP* instead of GWP100 could deliver a very different “climate neutral” emissions profile for Ireland’s AFOLU sector associated with a relatively higher level of cattle production. New Zealand has adopted a Net Zero Carbon climate target that largely follows this approach, based on a 24-47% reduction in biogenic methane emissions by 2050, relative to a 2017 baseline. However, application of GWP* to determine climate neutral emissions profiles at national level is contentious because the methodology is particularly sensitive to baseline emissions. In particular, application of GWP* to determine climate neutrality at national level would severely constrain expansion of livestock and rice production in developing countries with low baseline methane emissions (whilst countries with higher baseline emissions continue to be allowed to produce more). Thus, whilst the New Zealand approach may be seen by some as an attractive template for Ireland, it may not be an internationally accepted one, and thus carries considerable risk. Fair international allocation of a global biogenic methane budget compatible with global climate stabilization is thus pertinent to the determination of a target GHG profile in Ireland’s AFOLU sector. The definition of “carbon neutrality” is not just one of arithmetic, then, but invokes numerous assumptions and framing choices. An ongoing task in the SeQUEsTER project is to explore the implications of different assumptions used to define carbon neutrality, and the effect on imputed sustainable land use patterns.                 

Proactive navigation of land management  

There is considerable scope for further efficiency improvements in livestock farming, such as those set out in the Marginal Abatement Cost Curve developed by Teagasc, to reduce the carbon footprint of Irish beef and milk production and drive progress towards carbon neutrality. However, incremental improvements in production efficiency have not kept pace with increased consumption over the past decades, and will not be sufficient to meet climate objectives. Because the world has collectively left serious GHG mitigation so late (the first assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was published 30 years ago!), effective climate stabilization will necessitate rapid change. There are some easy wins, but also a lot of difficult trade-offs, especially around the opportunity cost of land. For example, using grass for biomethane production could provide a diversified revenue stream for grassland farmers and reduce emissions in the energy sector, but would not directly offset emissions within the AFOLU sector. Afforestation, on the other hand, would represent a much more radical shift in land use for some farmers, but, by offsetting more emissions within the AFOLU sector, offers more headroom for a higher level of livestock production nationally within climate constraints. The most efficient use of land in future will be strongly influenced by prevailing energy sources and commercial development (or not) of “negative emissions technologies” such as carbon capture & storage. Developing a clear road map to appropriate destination points for carbon neutrality in the AFOLU sector within wider national and global decarbonization trends is imperative in order to avoid costly detours on the now short path to climate stabilization.

Climate responsibility in an open economy

Ireland is an open economy with diverse trade links to the rest of the world. Actions in Ireland have consequences elsewhere. It has been argued that displacement of comparatively efficient production of milk and beef in Ireland to other regions of the world with less efficient production could actually increase global GHG emissions. This argument is contested, as there are many regions of the world with high potential for sustainable intensification of cattle production, and also signs that beef consumption is declining in economically developed countries. Furthermore, the logic of this approach is that consumers, not producers, take responsibility for emissions, which would necessitate Ireland taking responsibility for emissions arising from the production of all goods imported into the country. For better or worse, the existing framework for GHG accounting and mitigation targets is based around territorial emissions. These are emissions over which national governments, companies and citizens have a considerable degree of control, and we don’t have the luxury of waiting for the lengthy international negotiations that would be needed to shift to consumption-based accounting. When your hair is on fire, you don’t waste time shopping for the cheapest bottle of water! The new government’s commitment to an annual seven percent reduction in national GHG emissions is welcome in this regard.

The SeQUEsTER blog  

The first year of the SeQUEsTER project has been dedicated to building a biophysical land use model that calculates GHG emissions from land use scenarios within the national AFOLU sector, largely replicating methodologies within Ireland’s national GHG inventory. This model will be applied with a back-casting approach to identify all possible land use combinations that comply with various definitions of carbon neutrality in Ireland’s AFOLU sector. The challenge then will be to identify which of these many pathways are more desirable than others in social and economic terms. Stakeholder consultation will be critical to inform this process of filtering out promising pathways. This blog series is intended to provide a sounding board for different visions on the future shape of farming, forestry and land use in Ireland. To be successful, it will host inspirational vision, pragmatism, maybe the odd bit of cynicism, and most of all a rich diversity of thought to capture glimpses of what a climate neutral AFOLU sector could look like. We are delighted to have received commitments to contribute from Dr Lini Wollenberg (CCAFS Flagship Leader for Low Emissions Development), Professor Agustin del Prado (Basque Centre for Climate Change Livestock GHG Modelling Specialist), Professor Alan Matthews (Professor of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College Dublin and member of the Climate Change Advisory Council), Dr Pietro Iannetta (Molecular ecologist and agro-ecosystem analyst at the James Hutton Institute), and Dr Andre Mazzetto (Life Cycle Assessment Scientist for AgResearch, New Zealand). We anticipate others to follow.

Welcome to this blog spot. Please check in periodically to enjoy new posts and contact us if you would like to offer a blog. Thank you for reading so far.

About the author

David Styles is a Lecturer in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) at the University of Limerick, and principle investigator on the SeQUEsTER project. He specializes in environmental foot-printing of food & bioenergy systems, and consequential LCA of interactions across systems. His research group analyses, inter alia, beef and dairy systems (temperate and tropical), sheep systems, anaerobic digestion, wood products, novel foods & feeds produced from plant protein, low-input horticulture, micro-brewed beers and spirits, water-heat recovery.   

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