A perspective from Leitrim

Premise: the Cróga initiative 

In December 2019, Good Energies Alliance Ireland published the first county-based carbon inventory report of its kind, choosing County Leitrim as the setting. This was the result of six months of work by a team of young European researchers, all volunteers. The study coincides with Phase 1 of a three-phase initiative branded Cróga, the Irish word for “brave”, and the acronym of “Carbon Resilient Opportunities for Generations Ahead”.  In Phase 2, we initiated Climate Dialogue sessions to catalyse the local community in the definition of a bottom-up climate action plan. Phase 3 includes the implementation of the plan and replication in other areas.1 

Why undertake in such an exercise for a territory that is peripheral and small when addressing a topic that is bigger than any nation-State? Because the climate (and biodiversity) crisis will continue to be perceived as distant threats if communities do not have ownership of what is at stake. Grassroots movement fail if the underlying challenge doesn’t become part of the living fibre of the community.  

Cròga started with science and numbers. We were trying to answer a simple question: is Leitrim as “green” as it seems? The answer is: “It’s complicated”.  

Leitrim carbon deficit 

Thanks to the meticulous science of carbon accounting, we found that Leitrim has an annual carbon deficit of about 225,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2eq). This means that, each year, activities in Leitrim release into the atmosphere 225,000 tons more than local carbon sinks can absorb. In other words, Leitrim exceeds its carbon budget by 52%. 

Those tons stack up, year after year, building up Leitrim’s carbon debt and, since air-borne molecules know no borders, contribute to the global carbon debt. If carbon was a currency, the world would be bankrupt. But industrialised countries continue to borrow on debt; the recipe for a crash. 

Going back to Leitrim, let’s have a look at this infographic: 

Figure 1: Leitrim carbon inventory 

Leitrim carbon inventory infographic

Source: GEAI (2019) 

Agriculture is the heavyweight in absolute terms, but when we compare sector-by-sector unit-based emissions against the national average, it’s actually transport and housing that are off scale (+21% and +27% respectively), mainly due to the predominance of combustion engine vehicles, low efficiency of the building stock and low grade fuels. So that’s where the big cuts shall happen. But let’s focus on agriculture here. 

Agriculture in Ireland’s carbon inventory  

Ireland is a unique in the European landscape when it comes to agriculture’s share of carbon inventory.2 Agriculture accounts for 33% of Ireland emissions inventory, whilst the EU average is 10%. Furthermore, the two greenhouse gases produced by agriculture, methane and nitrous oxide, are much more potent in terms of heat-trapping power in comparison with carbon dioxide.3 Hence, any serious climate policy has to deal with this. But shall the reduction effort (burden?) be shared equally across the country? That’s a different story. 

Regional heterogeneity in climate and environmental impact of farming 

There is gradient of farming intensity running across Ireland, and emissions levels mirror that. We have precise figure only for Leitrim, but we can reconstruct other counties’ emissions with a stratagem. If we take livestock farming intensity (LSU/ha) as a driver (proxy) of farm-gate emissions, it is possible to sketch an emissions map.4  

Figure 2: Estimate of livestock farming emissions by county [ktCO2eq/year] 

A close up of a map

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Source: GEAI elaboration based on CSO end EPA data (2020) 

Not surprisingly, emissions cluster where intensive beef production and big dairy herds are found.5 

Farming intensity in Leitrim is 0.61 (LSU/ha). Less than an adult cow per hectare. The lowest in the country. Literature threshold defining non-intensive farming is 1. Most farms in the North-West are under that value, qualifying as High Nature Value (HNV), namely farms that are managed in a way that sustains the richness of local wildlife (plants and animals), whilst curbing flood hazard, purifying water and soil, and storing carbon. HNV farmers not only produce good and proximate food, but maintain and enhance ecological equilibria. They are guardians of natural functions and cycles, anywhere in the world. 

Figure 3: Leitrim farming climate impact in numbers 

agriculture-infographic

On the failed remuneration of ecosystem services 

Is this ecological work reflected in farmers’ income? No, farmers’ income in the North-West is four times less that of a farmer in the South. Are those sustainable practices incentivized by institutional programmes? No. The following two maps depict this distorted reality. 

Figure 4: Geographical clash between where good environmental outputs are produced (left map) vs. where CAP payments go (right map) 

Where eco-friendly farmers are Where agri-subsidies go 

Source: DAFM 

That is the typical case of what environmental economists refer to as positive externalities. It is a problem of undervaluation of the commons, entities that cannot be directly bought or sold, but provide wide social benefits. For instance, a pristine groundwater source, pollinator insects, native seeds, old-growth forests… their worth should reflect their intrinsic value plus the value of their service to society. Yet, the “price” of those resources is somewhat hidden, not observable (in economists’ jargon: shadow price). And when commons’ sustainability depends on the work of someone, that should be remunerated too.  

We all know that severe weather events, soil and water pollution and biodiversity loss cost public and private money, determine failures of entitlements, and destroy livelihoods. The work of averting those undesired consequences should be assigned a value. That is why farmers should receive a compensation for taking care of commons. 

Building a new paradigm for agriculture climate policy 

Reducing emissions is ultimately a matter of equality. It matters where and how targets are distributed6 When ecological services are not adequately valued, disparities ensue, leading to ineffective or harmful policies and market biases. Further lowering of farming activities where it is already not intense will lead to collapse of ecological functions and impoverishment of local farmers.  

The measures indicated by Teagasc in the MACC7 to reduce agriculture emissions are not ambitious enough, retaining the status quo. A brave climate policy for agriculture would shift the old paradigm, possibly exploring innovative solutions like infra-sector cap & share and results-based transfers for multifunctional achievements. 

Concluding remarks 

Climate justice is about empowering communities to be the agents of their own resiliency. The resiliency of a community is intimately connected with the good governance of commons for the highest shared benefit. Farmers are the custodians of many commons and their work should be acknowledged and rewarded by policies and by the market.8 

Article written by Nicoló G. Tria, GEAI Development & Research Officer, nicolo.tria@geai.ie 

A shorter version of this article has been published on greennews.ie


Footnotes

  1. You can find out more on the Cróga initiative and GEAI on www.goodenergiesalliance.ie. Get in touch at goodenergies@geai.ie. 
  2. The ETS sectors are: energy generation; heavy industries, like steel and concrete-manufacturing; and aviation. Agriculture, with the housing sector and transport, are the three sectors that do not participate in the European Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). Ireland’s emissions are so polarised by agriculture that this pushes the relative weight of non-ETS sectors above EU average.
  3. 28 and 256 times more, respectively, according to their Global Warming Potential (GWP) over a 100 years time horizon. GWP only captures the instantaneous heat-trapping power and downplays the dynamic effect. The proposed GWP* factors in the time variable, making it much more accurate when the concern is the cumulative level of emissions over a period.  
  4. Of course, livestock intensity is not the only driver of agriculture GHGs emissions, but it is the one that has the biggest impact. Differences in emission factors between animal species are to be taken into account too, as the practice of extensive tillage which requires more fertilisers. 
  5. Traditionally, intensive systems are clustered in the South and South-East. Cavan is an exception, but it has intensive pig farms that crank up the level. However, pigs emission factors are low in terms of direct methane emissions, but quite substantial in terms of manure emissions, so the net effect may be slightly lower. Adjusting for the emissions factor will harmonise the data. Farming intensity is also a driver of other farm-born environmental threats, like nitrogen pollution. 
  6. According to the Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities, established at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, areas with higher historical contribution to global emissions should undertake the biggest effort in abating them.  
  7. Marginal Abatement Cost Curve. https://www.teagasc.ie/media/website/publications/2018/An-Analysis-of-Abatement-Potential-of-Greenhouse-Gas-Emissions-in-Irish-Agriculture-2021-2030.pdf 
  8. To know more about the relationship between commons, climate justice, and the cap & share system, check Justin Kenrick, “The Climate and The Commons”, in Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society; Feasta, 2012; Dublin.