Last year, the Citizens’ Assembly voted in favour of placing an environmental levy on greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Ireland’s lush green landscape and rich farming pastures produce some of the most environmentally sustainable milk and meat in Europe, but present a challenge in reconciling Ireland’s ambition to reduce emissions and meet climate change commitments. 

Ireland wants to be a leader in tackling climate change – but what exactly would a levy on greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture look like?

Greenhouse gasses are important for our survival on the planet. They help keep our planet warm by letting the sun's heat in and blocking some of it as it goes out.

But in the past 100 years or so, human activities have changed this natural balancing act. Mainly through the burning of fossils fuels, we have increased the levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, causing a lot more heat to be trapped. This is changing our climate in ways we expect won’t be good.

A cow emits about the same amount of greenhouse gas as a car in a year, but a cow can't be replaced by an electric vehicle

Ireland, like most countries, has pledged to reduce greenhouse gases. We are, however, not on target to meet our commitments and instead are likely to have to purchase credits at an estimated cost of €100m to meet our obligations for the year 2020.  

Most of us are familiar of the pictures of billowing smoke stacks, burning fossil fuels like coal and releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but others sources of greenhouses gases occur when cattle belch out stomach gas (enteric fermentation) after chewing grass or from animal manure and fertiliser application to name just a few.

A cow emits about the same amount of greenhouse gas as a car in a year. However, unlike cars, which can be replaced with electric vehicles fuelled with clean electricity, we have few technological options for cattle that have not already been employed in Ireland.

We produce a lot milk and meat in Ireland. Most of this is for export to other countries (where it is consumed) – but the emissions are actually accounted for here.

The environmental footprint of Irish produce is very good when compared to other EU countries, but the challenge is that about one-third of Ireland’s emissions come from agriculture, with a large portion of that coming from cattle alone. 

This is quite unique in Europe, where agriculture has a much smaller contribution.

The Citizens Assembly on climate change looked at this issue and voted to put an environmental levy on these emissions and use the revenue generated to support climate friendly agricultural practices.

Such a move would have to be socially and politically supported and considered against the backdrop of farming families who feel they are not getting a fair price

Environmental levies and taxes are nothing new. We have a plastic bag levy of 22 cent per shopping bag and we already have a carbon tax of €20/tonne in Ireland, which raised €433m in revenue in 2017.

This applies to certain fuels that we burn for heating and for transport purposes, but not to agriculture. The current rate in Ireland is €20 a tonne of carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas). 

This means if you buy a 20kg bag of coal you pay €1.05 in carbon tax. If you buy a litre of petrol you pay just under €0.05 in carbon tax.  

If the same is applied to milk, it would add €0.02 to a litre of milk produced in Ireland and €0.40 to a kg of meat or €0.04 to the price of a McDonald's Big Mac.

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If this was applied to all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions produced in Ireland it would raise about €400m. To put this in context: all environmental taxes and levies in 2017 in Ireland raised approximately €3.5bn, predominantly from the transport sector.

However, lots of tricky decisions and elements would have to be worked out on the logistics of such a levy. How would it be applied? How would we deal with imports and exports, and how would we ensure it is not double counted? These are not simple matters.

While Ireland’s emissions profile is unique, the challenge facing Ireland in reducing emissions isn’t

Of course, such a move would have to be socially and politically supported and considered against the backdrop of farming families who feel they are not getting a fair price for their produce today and are already struggling financially.

However, the aim of such a levy would be to recycle the revenue raised back into rural Ireland to help families move to more sustainable practices. 

While Ireland’s emissions profile is unique, the challenge facing Ireland in reducing emissions isn’t. Germany has to contend with its heavy steel industry, China has challenges with coal, Iceland has emissions from aluminium production and Ireland has agriculture. 

Navigating the pathway to a low carbon future means difficult choices have to be made and trade-off considered. 

The Citizens' Assembly has recommended putting a price on emissions coming from Irish agriculture. Prices are a strong way of passing information through an economy to us about our personal choices and actions. No doubt it is the start of a long conversation but one that is one that is important to have. 


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.