Ireland is set to measure the carbon footprint not just of its people but of its cattle! No, the silly season has not arrived .  Another new contract  for Irish Beef destined for McDonalds was announced recently. Currently 20% of Big Macs consumed in Europe are made with Irish beef and new contracts and new investment promise to increase this proportion. Which is very good news for the Irish beef industry.

In welcoming this, the Agriculture Minister proclaimed a world first for Ireland – plans to identify not only the individual animal the beef came from, but also to detail the carbon footprint of the animal, i.e. how much its methane emissions amount to annually!  All this as part of the drive to make Irish beef more attractive to environmentally conscious consumers,  conserve energy, and reduce Ireland’s carbon footprint.

Irish agriculture has escaped much of the recession and  food and food related products are booming. Ireland is the fourth largest net exporter of beef in the world and half of the cream liqueurs sold in the world are made here. A concerted drive is under way to stress the quality and healthy nature of food produced in Ireland. The export potential, particularly in markets such as China, is immense. There are plans to expand beef and milk production,  to be done in a sustainable way, in order to meet the separate targets set for energy saving and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s worth looking at this at a time when we have had a few recent reminders that  we are a small country trying to survive and make an impact. The Eurocrisis continues to unfold, but now there is talk of some significant relief on our banking debt, which will be achieved by clinging to the coattails of a much bigger country, Spain. However it is achieved it will be welcome, though given our structural deficit it will not be a case of “with one bound our hero was free.” In sport also our soccer team, of whom much had been expected,  performed abysmally at the European Championships, clocking up the worst results ever by  a qualifier, while our rugby team (expectations ditto) suffered a crushing whitewash in New Zealand.

Jokes apart,  the largest single component of our greenhouse gas emissions is agriculture, which accounts for 30% of the total, followed by energy at 22% and transport at 19%. Irish industry is relatively clean at 15%. Hence the concentration on cleaning up agriculture and the carbon footprint of cattle.  However, overall, Ireland continues to perform poorly in terms of its international commitments under the Kyoto agreement and  the environment lobby has for years been beating up on the Government over this. There have been recent signs that the figures are moving in the right direction, but this is  chiefly because of the domestic recession.

And there is one of the rubs. During the years of the Celtic Tiger greenhouse emissions rose sharply as the economy boomed. We are now striving to restore economic growth, the mantra for solving unemployment and restoring prosperity. This  will almost inevitably generate more pollution and more greenhouse gases. Sustainable development, the other mantra of most of the first world, is a longer term project and, in Ireland’s case, could well  involve higher costs, thus inhibiting growth  by overpricing our exports. It’s not an easy place to be, particularly since Irish energy costs are already among the highest in Europe and there is much local resistance to proposals for sustainable energy projects such as wind farms. There is also the unpalatable truth that if, for example, Ireland was to reduce the size of its dairy herd in order to reduce its carbon footprint, any slack or gap in the market would be filled rapidly by Latin American and other producers.

Should Ireland be making the effort? We are, after all a very small player on the world scene.  Ireland is currently No. 66 in the league table of carbon footprint emissions, with  43,604,000 metric tonnes released in 2008, 0.14% of the world total. China led the way with over 7 thousand million tonnes released, 160 times the Irish total and 23.33% of the world total. The USA was second, with almost 5.5 billion tonnes (18%). India and Russia, the next two countries were some way behind, each contributing  over 5% of the world total. The total emissions from all 27 EU states came to 14% of the global total, less than the USA alone.

By 2010 China’s emissions had increased by 14% to almost 8.25 billion tonnes, India’s by  18.7% to pass the two billion mark,  the USA and Russia had remained roughly the same. The increase in China’s emissions  was greater than  Ireland’s total emissions would amount to over 20 years. The complicating factor is, of course, the per capita figure, with Chinese CO2 emissions less than 5 tons per capita, India’s less than 2 tons, the USA over  19 tons and Australia over 20.

Although Ireland’s emissions per capita have been declining since 2001, Ireland still had the second highest level in the EU in 2009 with 13.8 tons, second only  to Luxembourg (which has a slightly artificial figure) and well above the EU average of 9.2 tons. There is definitely scope for action.

The whole issue of climate change has become something of a political football. I’ve always regarded it as a no brainer. The rapid industrialisation of countries like China and India, as well as the second echelon of developing nations, are generating man made pollutants on a scale never encountered before. Parking for a moment fanciful (and unprovable) notions that the Earth can take it or that what is occurring is just part of a natural cycle of climate change of indeterminate length and intensity, it is at least prudent to sit down and work out a strategy for  dealing with a possible worst case scenario. The Hole in the Ozone Layer should have been a warning tap on the shoulder.

There is no doubt that global action is needed on the environment, and quickly. Yet the recent failure of the Rio + 20 Conference to produce anything more than a non-binding declaration shows how difficult it is to achieve concrete results internationally . It’s not hard to suggest a reason. Whatever pronouncements their leaders make,  populations in the developing world  want essentially what  their counterparts in the developed world have – a higher standard of living; and who can blame them.  Those counterparts  are loathe to cut back significantly to make space, and have politicians finely tuned to respond. The result is more pollution and a succession of international talking shops that get nowhere.

This is not an area where Ireland  of itself can make a material difference. But it is one where we can make a moral point,  perhaps begin setting an example, even become proactive in working for effective international action. I have pointed out previously the false premises behind much of our whinging. We are among the world’s fortunate. We have no historical baggage. This is an issue which could potentially affect all mankind. Ireland’s stance should be unequivocal.


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