Northern Ireland faces loss of 1 million sheep and cattle to meet climate targets | Environment

Northern Ireland will need to lose more than 1 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 of farm animals follows the passage of the jurisdiction’s first climate act, requiring the agricultural sector to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and reduce methane emissions by nearly 50% over the same period.

About a third of human-caused methane emissions come from livestock, primarily from burping and dung from beef and dairy cattle. KPMG’s analysis, commissioned by industry representatives including 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 meet the new climate targets.

Separate analyzes by UK government climate advisers suggest that the number of chickens would also need to be reduced by 5 million by 2035. Both the pork and poultry sectors in Northern Ireland have experienced rapid growth over the past decade.

A herd of cows in a field
Agriculture is responsible for around 27% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the vast majority coming from livestock. Photography: Bernard O’Kane/Alamy

Northern Ireland has for some years been the only decentralized administration without specific climate legislation and emission reduction targets. The region’s agri-food industry and associated agricultural groups have long raised concerns about the expected impact of emission reductions.

Agriculture is responsible for around 27% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the vast majority coming from livestock. Its heavily export-oriented meat industry mainly supplies Britain, but 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 companies of its kind in Europe and the biggest company in Northern Ireland, while pork producer JMW Farms, with based in Armagh, saw its gross turnover nearly triple to £54 million between 2011 and 2020.

A spokesperson for KPMG said: “Under the [Climate Change Act’s] net-zero goal, we assume that ‘meat and other cattle’, ‘dairy’ and ‘sheep’ do more work to decarbonize due to these sectors being responsible for the largest livestock-related impact on NI’s carbon emissions.

“Both the ‘swine’ and ‘poultry’ sectors have a smaller impact on carbon emissions from agriculture (2% and 1% respectively) and therefore any effort to decarbonise could have a smaller impact on total carbon emissions. ”

Ewa Kmietowicz, head of the land use mitigation team at the Climate Change Committee (CCC), said: higher emissions because they are ruminants and have high methane emissions.

“But pigs and poultry also have a lot of indirect emissions through growing and providing forage. A lot of pig feed is imported into the UK, which would not necessarily impact UK territorial emissions, but it is 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 shift to agriculture would likely be necessary if food production levels remain the same in Northern Ireland. “One condition in our modeling is that we produce the same amount of food per capita in 2050,” he said. “But it’s very difficult to do that unless you see a change in farming practice, and especially unless you see a change in farming in relation to livestock.

“So it’s a big challenge – and I’m interested to see what the executive is going to do now, as the majority of emissions come from animals. This will very soon come home to Northern Ireland.”

The decentralized Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs was contacted for comment.

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