Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 2 November 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action

Reduction of Carbon Emissions of 51% by 2030: Discussion (Resumed)

Dr. James Moran:

I thank the committee for the invitation to present this evidence statement today at a time when the requirement for urgent climate action is abundantly clear. I work as a lecturer in biology and ecology in the department of natural resources and the environment at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, where I lead the agro-ecology and rural development, ARD, research group. The group concentrates its work on sustainable agricultural and land use systems, with a particular focus on the Common Agricultural Policy and improving agri-environment policy and practice. In my presentation today, I wish to concentrate on policy advice for a more integrated approach to land use policy and practice, cognisant of a range of national and international commitment and societal needs. I plan to focus in particular on the interactions between agriculture and the environment. It is clear that climate change and biodiversity decline are interconnected challenges which cannot be addressed without building a sustainable food system. We need to have a more integrated land use policy and practice that focuses on optimising land use and making the best use of our land resources to meet our commitments and societal needs.

We are not in a good place as regards the current state or direction of travel with regards to the interactions between land use and the environment. We are not at as bad a starting point as some countries but that does not mean we are in a good place. Based on national monitoring data, we see 85% of our EU protected habitats in unfavourable or inadequate condition, with 46% of these exhibiting a declining trend, while water quality is deteriorating, with pristine water bodies declining from 500 to 20 in just 30 years. Some 30% of the area of semi-natural grassland monitored has been lost in the past ten to 15 years, and total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions per hectare continue to rise. There is some positive news at local level, as exemplified by work in the Burren and other areas, where locally adapted pilot projects focused on results-based payments for biodiversity and other ecosystem services, such as flood storage, carbon sequestration and improved water quality, have proven successful through enhanced peatland, grassland and woodland management.

The threats have been identified, the solutions have been developed at local level and, now, the challenge is to scale up the implementation of these solutions. In transitioning to modern land use strategies to meet societal needs, we must avoid going from production tunnel vision to an emissions tunnel vision approach. The Government declared a biodiversity and climate emergency in May 2019, an important step recognising that climate change and biodiversity loss are interrelated problems threatening food security and the sustainability of our agricultural systems. We need to deal with these in an integrated manner. We must maximize the co-benefits of biodiversity and climate actions and minimise any trade-offs. The multiple challenges we face to build a resilient food system during climate and biodiversity crises seem unsurmountable to the individual and to administrations, leading to the prevailing situation of inertia and inaction we see today. Individual farmers feel powerless in face of increased globalisation, consolidation of the agri-industry, complexity of the policy framework and poor market returns. We need to create a policy framework that is an enabling environment for positive action.

We live in a country with a diverse mix of landscapes, characterised by differences in geology, topography, soils, climatic variation and land cover, with a wide range in land use capacity. One size certainly does not fit all, and different land types are advantaged to provide a set of particular services, for example, high quantities of food and fibre, carbon storage, flood alleviation, space for nature or amenity and recreational value. We need to create a system where it is possible for different areas to capitalise on their natural advantages.

The development of the Common Agricultural Policy strategic plan offers an immediate opportunity for positive change. Recent work detailed in this evidence submission highlights CAP as an opportunity to deliver high-quality food outcomes and enhance farm livelihoods by mitigating our climate and biodiversity crises.

Biodiversity underpins our food supply, but it is undervalued in our agriculture production system and policy framework.

Over the past ten years, there has been significant work in Ireland to test and trial locally adapted, results-orientated solutions. We have designed and implemented integrated agri-environmental results-based payment schemes for a range of biodiversity targets and associated ecosystem services. That is essentially putting a value on the high-quality habitat areas of the farm that are providing pollination services and carbon storage and contributing to water quality and flood alleviation. Over the past two years, we have concentrated on the design of the CAP green architecture and how we can build on the success of various pilot programmes, including the Burren and European innovation partnerships, EIPs, models.

We propose an integrated framework across Pillars 1 and 2 of the CAP with three tiers involving increasing environmental ambition and delivery, moving from baseline conditionality in tier 1 to eco-schemes in tier 2 and agri-environmental climate measures in tier 3. We suggested the tier 3 agri-environment climate measures be divided into two broad streams, one targeted at medium to intensive farmland landscapes and the other concentrated on extensive semi-natural farmland areas dominated by semi-natural vegetation. This is to ensure more effective, targeted action and to build on the lessons from the EIPs. In recent months, the published draft interventions for the CAP strategic plan highlight plans to integrate results-based payments and a locally adapted approach into the design of agri-environmental schemes.

The solutions to many of the land-use challenges we see today lie in better targeting of land use to match the capacity of the land to produce multiple services to meet societal needs. We need to value people, nature and food within an integrated land-use strategy. As details have emerged in recent weeks, there are some worrying trends in terms of the weakening of the environmental ambition of Ireland’s CAP strategic plan. We must ensure coherence and consistency across all aspects of the interventions, building on excellent examples of successful programmes to ensure we deliver on climate, biodiversity and water targets. Co-operation and a farmer-centred model, together with an evidence-based approach, have been key elements in the success of various pilot programmes and must be maintained throughout the development and implementation of the CAP strategic plan.

In the recent announcement of the 2023 to 2027 CAP budget, we have seen proposals to cap agri-environmental funding per farm at €10,000, with some farms capped at €7,000. This is problematic as many of the farms delivering the highest environmental performance under the current CAP are receiving much higher agri-environmental supports currently. An important aspect of the payment structures of locally adapted, results-based programmes to date, including the Burren programme and hen harrier and pearl mussel projects, is that there is no maximum payment ceiling and overall budget management is facilitated by degressive payment bands. This is critical to ensuring farmers can continue to improve their environmental outcomes. This is a key feature of results-based agri-environmental programmes to date, which are now proposed as the delivery model for agri-environmental schemes in the CAP strategic plan.

We have also seen a weakening of the environmental ambition in baseline conditionality, moving from 5% to 4% for non-productive areas and landscape features, and the inclusion of nitrogen fixation and catch crops to meet the 4% target. As a minimum, we need to align eco-schemes with targets in the agrifood strategy 2030 as detailed on page 10 of the submission document.

I ask members to ensure we have an environmentally ambitious CAP strategic plan that is coherent across the range of interventions. Given the extent of the challenges we face in the coming decade, if the CAP strategic plan from 2023 to 2027 does not provide the necessary supports to farmers and reward achievement of results, then we have no hope of achieving our 2030 targets.