As world heats up, our farmers can be brave climate leaders

Ireland still emits 12.3 tonnes of CO2 per capita, compared to the EU average of six tonnes - we must do more, says Kathriona Devereux
As world heats up, our farmers can be brave climate leaders

A firefighter contains a wildfire during last week’s heatwave in Sheffield, England. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

REMEMBER when a “good summer” in Ireland meant enough sunshine to get to the beach a few times, a handful of barbecues that weren’t rained on, and maybe a week of warm and sunny weather when you slept with just a sheet on you?

In recent years, heatwaves and droughts have become more common summer occurrences, as climate change becomes apparent and the idea of a “good summer” is beginning to shift.

As I read the coverage about the sweltering temperatures in the UK and mainland Europe, I think of the people who are not having a ‘good summer’. The firefighters battling wildfires in stifling temperatures, outdoor workers who toil in life-threatening conditions, and the thousands of people across the continent who have died as a result of the 2022 heatwave.

And there is no end in sight.

The death of a street sweeper in Madrid from heatstroke has prompted unions across Europe to demand better employment protections for outdoor workers during heatwaves. Calls to stop the job when it’s too hot are only going to get stronger as the planet continues to heat.

Heatstroke happens when the body can no longer maintain a temperature of under 40C when exposed to hot weather. It is inhumane to expect a person to toil in temperatures that might kill them.

Climate scientists and activists are taking absolutely zero pleasure in saying “I told you so” as the predictions of insufferable heat play out across Europe. 40C degrees could be expected in the United Arab Emirates, but to see such temperatures in the United Kingdom is shocking.

It was only at the end of June that the UK’s Met Office did a future- gazing ‘mock’ weather forecast for Glastonbury in 2050, predicting temperatures of 37-40C. The forecast came with a disclaimer “Not actual weather forecast. Examples of plausible weather based on climate predictions”.

However, just 28 days later the ‘mock’” weather forecast predicted in 30 years became a reality with the mercury rising to 40.3C - 1.5C higher than the previous record of 38.7C recorded in 2019.

Climate scientists are scared that the climate crisis is worsening faster than anticipated.

Images of raging wildfires in the UK, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and Greece, as well as the rising death toll, are spurring intensified pleas for urgent climate action and a reduction of carbon emissions.

The UN’s Antonio Guterres called for “collective action, not collective suicide”, which is why it was utterly depressing to hear the news last week from the Environmental Protection Agency of Ireland’s rising carbon emissions in 2021.

Despite Ireland being the second country in the world to declare a climate emergency, despite climate legislation and legally binding targets to halve our emissions by 2030, despite public acceptance and desire for climate action last year, our emissions were 1.1 % above 2019 pre-COVID restriction levels.

We’re supposed to be slashing them by 7% every year.

The EPA highlighted that the increase is mostly due to a significant increase in emissions from the Energy Industries sector due to a tripling of coal and oil use in electricity generation in 2021, with a number of gas-powered plants offline during the year.

Electricity generated from renewables fell from 42% in 2020 to 35%, due to low rainfall and less wind.

Agricultural emissions did not reduce during Covid restrictions, grew 3% since 2020, are 15% higher than the 1990 level, and make up 37.5% of Ireland’s total emissions.

If you are to take a speck of positivity from the EPA report, it is that transport emissions are 10.5% below pre-pandemic levels.

Not everyone got back in their cars after Covid restrictions were lifted, so let’s hope that trend continues and more and more people swap driving for active travel and public transport.

So, coal and cows are the major problem. But we already knew that.

For the past few decades, most EU countries have taken successful steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with commitments to do more. Ireland still emits 12.3 tonnes of CO2 per capita, compared to the EU average of six tonnes.

In the EU as a whole, greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by 24% between 1990 and 2019, while the economy grew by around 60% over the same period.

Not Ireland though. We missed our 2020 reduction targets and pay significant fines as a result.

More renewables to replace fossil fuel energy is key to reducing our emissions as is seriously tackling our agricultural emission.

The farming of beef and dairy is one of Ireland’s biggest sources of emissions and farmers are on the frontline of climate change.

Extreme weather events are bad for business if your business is farming. It is in farmers’ best interest to reduce emissions, reduce warming, and avert the worst of a climate catastrophe.

At the moment, the Irish agricultural lobby claims to “feed the world”, which is true if the world’s menu consists solely of beef, butter, dairy-based food ingredients and infant formula.

Ireland is a net importer of food and many of the places that we rely on for our food are facing massive climate challenges that will be incompatible with current farming practices and are likely to lead to food insecurity in the future.

Globally, farming as usual is not going to cut it.

Irish farmers are uniquely positioned to be brave climate leaders and take on the challenge of a 30% reduction in emissions that is needed, and reap the benefits that a transformation to sustainable agriculture will bring to ensure some semblance of a “good summer” for everyone, into the future.

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