By John Gibbons and Paul Price.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. Novelist Upton Sinclair’s famous observation could well have been describing Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, a rare ambitious and ascending star on an otherwise jaded Fine Gael front bench.
Coveney’s understanding of the most basic of scientific facts will clearly not encumber his possible trajectory towards the goal of being Cork’s first Taoiseach since Jack Lynch. So, when Coveney appeared on a recent edition of RTÉ’s ‘PrimeTime’, only the thinnest of smiles betrayed the fact that he was selling a series of fat porkies on national television.
Coveney’s claim that the Irish dairy herd could be expanded by over 300,000 cows in the next five years “while maintaining the existing carbon footprint of the agriculture sector” is, he must well know, nonsensical. To defend it, he engaged in some unconvincing waffle about higher yields per animal somehow magically offsetting the massive increase in our national herd.
This manifest nonsense is blown out of the water by data from the Environmental Protection Agency, which show that methane (CH4) emissions from ‘enteric fermentation’ in Irish dairy cows actually increased, from 101kg per head per annum in 1990 to almost 113kg per head in 2012. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, at least 28 times more powerful as a heat-trapping gas per molecule than CO2.
The reason for the large increase in as few as 20 years? Almost certainly, it’s greater dairy intensification. So much for Coveney’s blarney about higher yields lowering emissions.
This sleight of hand also conceals a much wider truth about the nature of greenhouse gas emissions. And that is, what goes up, for all intents and purposes, stays up. Each year’s emissions are yet another warming addition to the human-caused accumulation in Earth’s atmosphere. So, even levelling annual emissions adds to total emissions and climate risk.
It is the sum of accumulated emissions to date, and the future emissions we choose to add to that absolute total that counts, not any efficiency measure such as emissions per animal or per kilogramme of milk or beef. The atmosphere does not care about ‘efficiency’ or ‘yield’ it just traps more heat as humans add to the sum total amount of resident greenhouse gases.
This is important because anyone who tries to argue that improving efficiency somehow reduces emissions does not understand reality, or does not want us to. Simply put, any given global warming policy limit, such as the 2ºC Ireland has signed up to, has a related amount of remaining emissions that can ever be emitted. Taking from Ireland’s share of the global carbon budget is a zero-sum game: more, used now by us, simply means less for others, elsewhere or in the future.
In opposition, Coveney had a clear grasp of the reality of climate change. Indeed, he spoke publicly that what he knew about the science of climate change “sent shivers down my spine”. But of course, Coveney was merely the Environment Spokesperson then, and free to speak truthfully since he had no actual political power.
That was then.
Since becoming Agriculture Minister, Coveney has quickly embraced the first rule of his office: keep the IFA off your back. And the IFA has applied its formidable muscle to vehemently opposing even the most modest steps towards addressing climate change. This is deeply ironic given that agriculture is, by definition, highly weather-dependent, and therefore uniquely exposed to the impacts of the very same climate change that farmers’ leaders are busy convincing themselves and us is ‘not our problem’.
The IFA is following the same mad, tragic logic as the global fishing lobby which has stymied every effort at imposing science-based fisheries quotas and which, in its thirst for short-term gain, is systematically wiping out the very basis of their livelihood for the future.
While Coveney is snared by his ambitions, and the IFA blindsided by its inability to think strategically, where are the expert advisors in all this?
Teagasc is the semi-state body, 75% paid for by Irish and EU taxpayers, that supports science-based innovation in the agri-food sector. Is Teagasc’s definition of ‘carbon footprint’ the same as climate science’s ‘sum total’? No, it is not. Instead Teagasc repeatedly redefines carbon footprint as ‘production efficiency’ based on emissions per unit product.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the 2011 publication ‘Irish Agriculture, Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Climate Change: Opportunities, Obstacles & Proposed Solutions’, in which Section 3.4 “From absolute emissions to emission intensities” spells out the codology:
“Under Section 5(9) of the Climate Change Response Bill, sectoral plans must account for the need to (a) promote sustainable development, (b) safeguard economic development, (c) take advantage of economic opportunities within and outside the State and d) be based on scientific research. Under these criteria, Teagasc contends that an ‘absolute emissions’ metric is inappropriate for the agricultural sector”.
The Earth’s climate system is entirely indifferent to economic imperatives. All that matters is physics. X amount of additional emissions begets Y increase in average surface temperatures. And known increases mean measurable, extremely dangerous and largely irreversible impacts on all life on Earth, be it human, dairy-cow or polar-bear.
All that matters to the climate system is absolute emissions. For Teagasc, a body claiming to be science-driven, to describe this metric as “inappropriate for the agricultural sector” strongly suggests the organisation has undergone ‘agency capture’. Instead of being the arbiter of the best available scientific evidence, it sees itself as ‘pulling on the jersey’ for its many friends and colleagues in the agriculture sector, the people it works with every day, the people who it identifies with.
If the facts about the impacts of climate change are inconvenient or likely to create tensions between Teagasc, the Minister and the IFA, well, let’s find some other, less unpalatable facts, dress them up with some scientific-looking charts (while burying the uglier realities deep in the bowels of their reports) and, just like Coveney on ‘Prime Time’, poof, the problem magically disappears.
Lest we forget, in October the EU agreed a new target of a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and a 27% target for renewable energy use, by 2030. It also set a 27% target for improvements in energy efficiency. This is just 15 years away. Precisely how is Ireland planning to meet these binding obligations for dramatic emissions reductions at a time when Harvest 2020 adds millions of extra tonnes of emitted CO2 and methane? Perhaps every car in the country should be taken off the road and electricity rationed to six hours a day?
Given that agriculture, which accounts for some 30% of Ireland’s total annual emissions, has given two fingers to bearing any of the burden of emissions reductions, then clearly either the remaining two thirds of our emissions are going to have to virtually stop dead or, more likely, the whole exercise is another ghastly sham.
Globally, meat and dairying produces a colossal 14.5% of global emissions. That’s more than all the cars, trains, planes and ships in the world – combined.
A recent Chatham House study in the UK found that the public grossly underestimated the carbon impact of agriculture. This lack of awareness is the main reason most people are unwilling to consider changing their diets away from meat and dairy-intensive choices.
Despite its massive contribution to climate change, beef and dairy “attracts remarkably little policy attention at either the international or national level”, the Chatham House study noted. “In the absence of policy, livestock will consume a larger and larger share of a rapidly-declining carbon budget”. Report author Rob Bailey added: “You can make a compelling case that without dietary change at the global level, the two-degrees goal is pretty much off the table”.
But as we see over and over again, one man’s global ecological disaster is another’s economic opportunity. By now it should be abundantly clear that Coveney and the IFA, aided by Teagasc, are not going to allow any number of uncooperative facts to get in the way of Ireland’s ambition to be the best little country in the world at trashing the planet. •
John Gibbons is a specialist environmental writer and commentator.
Paul Price has an MSc in Sustainable Development.