Source: An Taisce
Late last week, the Minister for Climate Action, Richard Bruton incorrectly stated that agriculture is “Ireland’s single greatest carbon sink”. Worryingly, the attempted clarification from Minister Bruton’s department, that the Minister was referring to all Irish land use and not just agriculture, does not explain or correct this deeply confusing and misleading claim.
In fact, the EPA’s most recent report to the United Nations, giving 2017 figures, shows Irish land use to be a major net source of carbon emissions, in net total overall 6 million tonnes (MtCO₂eq) per year, and is certainly not a “sink” for carbon removal from the atmosphere, as the Minister appears to be suggesting (see EPA land use projections  and corresponding chart ). ‘Grasslands’ and ‘Wetlands’ emitted over 10 million tonnes CO₂eq per year whereas ‘Forest land’ and ‘Harvested Wood Products’ is estimated to have removed only 4.5 million tonnes CO₂eq.
Worse still, due to excess plantation harvesting and low new afforestation, EPA projections show that even Ireland’s ‘Forest land’ net sink of annual removals will actually decrease from 2020, itself becoming a net source of emissions by 2030, and thereby raising total projected land use carbon emissions to 8 million tonnes CO₂eq per year.
DCCAE claim that a range of actions in the new Climate Action Plan, such as increased afforestation and rewetting of peatlands, are “aimed at reducing emissions from agricultural land use”. It is disappointing that the Department of Climate Action does not appear to grasp the multiple problems inherent in this simplistic framing of the true scale of the mitigation challenge associated with agriculture and land use. These include:
The major issue driving the ongoing reduction in land use carbon stocks are the serious carbon emissions occurring due to drainage of organic grassland soils and peat extraction for use in horticulture. Therefore climate action will require: regulation to prevent and reverse drainage of organic soils; and a rapid cessation of all peat extraction. Immediate measures to conserve and protect existing carbon stocks from further loss are required, rather than the proposed very limited measures to slowly rebuild stocks.
According to a recent report by the Department of Agriculture to the EU, ‘Managed Forest Land’ is already a net emitter because the average forest age is becoming younger, apparently due to excess harvest relative to past planting. Therefore, in regard to carbon storage, the primary problem with Irish forest plantation management is not low afforestation but excessive early harvesting. Given plans for increased biomass energy from Forestland timber, it seems likely that this pressure for increased harvesting may well worsen. Limiting harvesting to ensure no loss in land carbon storage now seems essential.
Compared with permanent native woodland, typical plantation forestry only stores a fraction of the carbon, provides far lower biodiversity and often degrades the beneficial quality of existing landscapes for society and citizens.
Most land use emissions are carbon dioxide which cannot be simply accounted as an offset against the other greenhouse gases, namely the nitrous oxide and methane emitted by Irish agriculture, primarily animal agriculture. The idea that land-use CO₂ can somehow ‘reduce agricultural emissions’ only works if Irish land use is a net remover (sink) for CO₂, which it is not; and if we can assume that land carbon storage can be equated with fossil carbon storage, which we cannot due to major issues with saturation, impermanence and measurement uncertainty.
It would be helpful if the Minister and his advisers, together with his officials in the DCCAE consulted with the experts at the EPA before issuing such misleading and confusing soundbites. Those leading the State’s Climate Action policy need to understand that current land use practices in agriculture, forestry and peatlands continue on a high carbon pathway, contrary to the greenwashing rhetoric from vested commercial interests in intensive farming, forestry and peat extraction.
Far more ambitious land use policy action than proposed in the Climate Action Plan is urgently needed to conserve and protect carbon stored in grassland, peat and forest and thereby to also restore the biodiversity dependent on these habitats.
CONTACT: John Gibbons, PRO, An Taisce climate change committee: 087 233 2689
 EPA (2019) projections for Land Use, Land Use Change and Forestry emissions and removals for 2015-2014: https://cdr.eionet.europa.eu/ie/eu/mmr/art04-13-14_lcds_pams_projections/projections/envxlxagq/MMR_Template_IRArticle23_table1_2019IE16042019v2.xlsx/manage_document
 Chart of the above data prepared by An Taisce: https://tinyurl.com/Ireland-2019-EPA-LULUCF-Proj