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Building blocks of the EU 2030 framework for climate and energy policy were agreed in October 2014. Favourably for Ireland, it looks likely that emission reduction concessions will be granted for agriculture. In light of this and planned farming intensification, Stephen Flood discusses the challenges of adapting our agriculture to a changing climate.

Overview of Irish Agriculture

Agriculture is an important component of the Irish economy and provides livelihoods for about 140,000 Irish families with an average farm size of 33 hectares The Irish agricultural sector contributes €24 billion to the national economy annually, accounts for almost 10% of Irish exports and provides 7.7% of national employment1. It is also set to grow significantly based on the ambitious “Food Harvest 2020” policy vision. Indicative targets include an increase of primary output in the agriculture, fisheries and forestry sector by €1.5 billion to €6.1 billion by 2020, equating to a 33% increase over the 2007-2009 average[2].  This jump in output relates to both an increase in value added and growth in volume. The existing dairy cow stock will experience growth in the region of 30%, farming intensity will increase and, in turn, this will lead to greater use of fertilisers[3].  Undoubtedly a range of impacts on the Irish environment will follow.

Irish Agriculture and Climate Change

In 2012, Ireland’s agricultural emissions made up 31.9% of total national greenhouse gas emissions[4]. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also estimates that agricultural emissions are projected to increase by 9% by 2020 on current levels. This increase is associated with the impact of “Food Harvest 2020” and the removal of the milk quota[5].  The recent (Oct 2014) further development of the EU 2030 Energy and Climate Framework will likely allow for this continued growth of Irish agricultural emissions. Successful lobbying by the Irish Government has convinced Europe of Ireland’s reliance on the sector, and it appears that EU fines may be avoided  for increasing agriculture related methane gas emissions as the right to offset its carbon sinks of forests, grasslands and bogs against high methane emissions attributed to agriculture will be permitted[6]. The EU 2030 Energy and Climate Framework sets an overall EU target of 40% emission reductions between 2020 and 2030 compared with 1990s levels. However, specific national targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have not been included[7].

Agriculture is one of the most climate-sensitive industries in Ireland, as its primarily outdoor production processes depend on particular levels of temperature and rainfall. The most significant climate change impacts on Irish agriculture relate to pests and diseases, crop yields, flooding, plant and animal stress factors, drought effects and the ability to provide sufficient resources for animals during extreme events[8]. A recent example of the role of regional rainfall and climate change was captured in the fodder crisis, whereby a poor growing season in 2012 combined with a long winter period resulted in a severe shortage of fodder.

Risk Management for Irish Agriculture

With the agricultural sector forming an important cornerstone of the economy and with increasing projected future output climate change adaptation actions need to be put in place to reduce future climate change related losses.

The Irish livestock and dairy sector is heavily reliant on our export partners with over 90% of Irish beef produced for export[9]. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine must invest sufficient resources in monitoring for pests and diseases in livestock and crops. In a grass based production system such as the Irish beef sector it is essential to recognise the threat of future climate changes on silage, hay and pasture outputs. We must also be wary of greater volumes of agricultural runoff as agricultural intensity and output increases.  Climate driven extreme precipitation events can enhance this runoff and result in water pollution and associated impacts on biodiversity as well as public health.

Adaptation actions should include increasing crop diversity and varieties, altering planting and harvest dates, planning for and implementing water supply management strategies, and supporting research that focuses on identifying crops that can grow more successfully in the next 10 or 20 years. Small local farmers are particularly at risk. Even comparatively “low-risk” actions farmers can take to address impacts associated with climate change may have huge implications for small farms with low profit margins and limited access to capital.

The climate change impacts and economic costs associated with Irish agriculture are documented in further detail in a 2013 report commissioned by Stop Climate Chaos8. Potential impacts could be in the region of €1-2 billion per annum by mid-century without significant adaptation actions in place.

Stephen is currently working as a post-doctoral fellow at the New Zealand Climate Change Research Institute at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.  His PhD thesis explored climate change impacts and adaptation in Ireland. His current work is focused on decision-making and climate change adaptation in New Zealand.


[1] Website. http://www.teagasc.ie/agrifood/

[2] Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. 2010. Food Harvest: A Vision for Irish Agri-food and Fisheries 2020.

[3] Donnellan, T. 2014. A future path for agriculture and its GHG emissions to 2030. Available from:     http://www.epa.ie/pubs/conferencesandevents/cc/Trevor%20Donnellan.pdf

[4] Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) 2014a. Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions in 2012.

[5] EPA 2014b. Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Projections 2013-2030.

[6] Irish Times, 2014. Fri, Oct 24th, 2014. Ireland’s reliance on agriculture recognised in EU climate deal.

[7] Website: http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/2030/index_en.htm

[8] Flood, S. 2013. Stop Climate Chaos Report: Projected Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture

[9] Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. 2013. Annual Review and Outlook for Agriculture, Food and the Marine 2012/2013.