Northern Ireland faces loss of one million sheep and cattle to meet climate targets | Environment


Northern Ireland will have to lose more than a million sheep and cattle to meet its new legally binding climate emissions targets, according to an industry-commissioned analysis seen by the Guardian.

The large-scale reduction in livestock numbers comes after the jurisdiction’s first-ever climate law was passed, obliging the agricultural sector to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and reduce emissions. methane emissions by almost 50% over the same period.

About one-third of man-made methane emissions come from livestock, primarily from burps and manure from beef and dairy cattle. A KPMG analysis, commissioned by industry representatives including the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), estimates that more than 500,000 cattle and around 700,000 sheep would need to be lost for Northern Ireland to reach the new climate goals.

A separate analysis from UK government climate advisers suggests the number of chickens is also set to fall by 5 million by 2035. The pig and poultry sectors in Northern Ireland have grown rapidly over the past decade .

Agriculture accounts for around 27% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the vast majority coming from livestock. Photograph: Bernard O’Kane/Alamy

Northern Ireland has for some years been the only devolved administration without dedicated climate legislation or emission reduction targets. The region’s agribusiness and associated agricultural groups have long been concerned about the expected impact of emissions reductions.

Agriculture accounts for around 27% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the vast majority coming from livestock. Its highly export-oriented meat industry mainly supplies Britain, but it also exports to China and North America.

The country’s main poultry processor, Moy Park (a subsidiary of Brazilian meat giant JBS), has become one of the biggest such companies in Europe and the biggest company in Northern Ireland, while the Armagh-based pig producer JMW Farms saw its gross turnover nearly triple to £54million between 2011 and 2020.

A KPMG spokesperson said: “Under the [Climate Change Act’s] net zero goal, we assumed that “beef and other cattle”, “dairy” and “sheep” do the most work to decarbonize, as these sectors represent the largest livestock-related impact on emissions of carbon from NI.

“The ‘pig’ and ‘poultry’ sectors have a minor impact on carbon emissions from agriculture (2% and 1%, respectively) and therefore any decarbonization effort can be assumed to have a minor impact on total carbon emissions.”

Ewa Kmietowicz, land use mitigation team leader at the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), said: “If you look at the evidence on the life cycle of greenhouse gas emissions, Livestock red meat sources – beef, milk, mutton – have the highest emissions because they are ruminants and emit a lot of methane.

“But pigs and poultry also generate many indirect emissions due to growth and feed supply. A lot of pig feed is imported into the UK which wouldn’t necessarily impact UK territorial emissions, but it’s still important because we don’t want to increase consumption emissions for the UK.

Chris Stark, chief executive of the CCC, told the Guardian that a switch to arable farming would likely be necessary if food production levels were to remain the same in Northern Ireland. “A condition of our modeling is that we produce the same amount of food per capita in 2050,” he said. “But it’s very hard to do unless you see a change in farming practices, and especially unless you see a change in arable farming versus livestock farming.

“So it’s a big challenge – and I’m interested to see what the executive comes up with now, since the majority of the shows are coming from the animals. It’s coming home to roost for Northern Ireland very soon.

The decentralized Ministry of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has been contacted for comments.

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