How can the agricultural sector in Ireland participate in a Just Transition to constructively address inequality in the sector and tackle climate change? Agriculture is not only a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, it is also the most unequal sector in the Irish economy in terms of income. When it comes to climate change and agriculture, we need to change how we think about the challenge of reducing emissions. Farmers and their communities must play a central role in planning climate action to ensure it is good for farmers as well as the planet.
When it comes to climate action in Ireland, discussion around the role of the agricultural sector can be fraught. This tension is understandable. Farming is the lifeblood of many communities around the country and Ireland rightly prides itself on the quality of its agricultural produce. There is a perception in Ireland that action to prevent climate change will negatively reshape Irish agriculture and, in doing so, undermine farmers’ livelihoods. This results in resistance to climate action from the very communities that stand to be most severely impacted by climate change.
There is clearly a need to find a deliberative approach to move beyond this impasse. To understand how we might achieve this, it is necessary to first look at what we know about the nexus between agricultural emissions, inequality and climate change in Ireland.
Firstly, we know that agriculture remains the single largest contributor to overall greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland, making up 33.3% of emissions in 2017.We also know that between 2016 and 2017, these emissions grew by 2.3% (from 19.646 Mt CO2 eq in 2016 to 20.213 Mt CO2 eq in 2017). The Environmental Protection Agency forecasts that, based on current policy measures, agriculture emissions will increase by 4.98% between 2017 and 2030. This is inconsistent with the findings of a Special Report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2018 which underscores the need for urgent emissions reductions. To stabilise the climate below or at 1.5oC of warming, science requires that CO2 emissions are reduced by 45% by 2030 and methane emissions are reduced by 35% or more by 2050, based on 2010 levels.
Secondly, TASC’s recently published report on inequality in Ireland, Cherishing All Equally – Inequality in Europe and Ireland 2019 highlights that the agricultural sector has the most severe inequality in income distribution of any sector in Ireland. This finding points to the sector having a significant reliance on unskilled workers employed by farm owners and a gulf in income between small farmers and large, profitable farms. There is also huge income differences based on the type of produce – between income-rich dairy farmers and income-poor sheep farmers, for instance. This level of inequality raises serious questions as to who in the sector stands to benefit from the Government’s Food Wise 2025 plan, which projects a €19 billion per annum increase in the agri-food industry by 2025. The strategy makes no mention of addressing inequality in the sector, but does intend to increase meat and dairy production which will have a negative impact on Ireland’s efforts to combat climate change.
Thirdly, Irish farmers stand to be severely impacted by climate change. The fodder crisis in 2018 highlighted the sensitivities that exist in the sector and served as a warning as to the potentially insurmountable challenge that climate instability will bring. Unfavourable weather late 2017 and early 2018 resulted in calls from farmers across the country for an emergency response to the situation and, in April, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed announced that fodder would have to be imported from abroad. Resilience to the impacts of climate change will come at a cost and, set against the backdrop of inequality in the sector, this cost will result in hardship for small farmers and job losses for those employed on farms.
These three points underscore the pressing need for a Just Transition in the Irish agricultural sector to address agricultural emissions and inequality in the agricultural sector while also building the sectors resilience to climate impacts. Failure to plan a Just Transition to a low emissions agricultural future would not only discredit Ireland’s contribution to the global fight against climate change, resulting in significant fines from the European Union, it will also have serious negative consequences for small farmers and farm labourers in Ireland.
Around the world, trade unions are calling for a Just Transition to ensure urgent and fair climate action that protects workers and their communities. The Just Transition necessitates involving workers and their communities in the transition to low-emission economies both because they will be affected by the decision-making and because they are involved as individual citizens and consumers. Moreover, considering the social aspect of the transition towards a more sustainable economy and society is crucial for gaining social approval for the changes taking place. Public policies to reduce emissions will face social resistance, as well as significant political risks for the governments tasked with implementing them, if they are not accompanied by measures to mitigate or avoid negative impacts on workers, and their communities.
To date, Just Transition frameworks have been closely linked to the fossil fuel industry. However, in other emissions intensive sectors, such as agriculture, the potential for stranded workers and stranded communities resulting from climate action is high. By giving farmers and their communities ownership over climate action and facilitating a planning process that includes just transition measures, decision makers can prevent opposition and provide for a future for farming that offers both security and opportunity.
Sean holds an B.Sc in Applied Physics from Dublin City University and an M.Sc. in Development Practice awarded by Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. Prior to joining TASC, Sean worked as a Policy Officer with the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice for five years. During this time he engaged with the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. He also led the Foundation’s work on intergenerational equity. Sean spent five years working in the private sector, as a catastrophe risk analyst with Renaissance Reinsurance. He also spent 2 years working in a hospice in Kolkata, India, and worked with the Environmental Protection Agency in Sierra Leone building the agencies capacity in Geographic Information Systems.