A conference on Europe's approach to changes of land use and their likely impacts on farming and forestry was held in Brussels yesterday, organised by independent MEP Luke Ming Flanagan. Land Use Land Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF)is a European proposal on strategies to lower greenhouse gas emissions from farming and forestry. The event brought together various stakeholders from Irish farming bodies including the ICSA, Irish Farmers with Designated Lands (IFDL), ecologists and one European lawmakers, including Artur Rung-Metzger of the European Commission.
Mr Rung-Metzger opened the proceedings with an in-depth look at how Europe assesses priorities when formulating policy programs. He outlined how Europe sees a need for it to take the lead in reducing emissions, with the ambitious target of a 40% reduction on 1990 levels by 2030. He explained how the European Commission has developed an accounting system for identifying emissions and removals. He added that Europe is attempting to move towards a “bio economy” by which he said, for example, instead of building in brick you build with wood, thereby saving the emissions from brick manufacturing as well as incentivising timber production.
Mr Rung-Metzger's presentation was detailed and precise but even he admitted that there are many instances in which policies at European level are lost in translation by state bodies. He was at pains to point out that the Commission proposals will just be policy directives, but that implementation will rest with state government. He said that the Commission recognises the limited mitigation potential for agriculture, as livestock produce methane and nitrous oxide, but he pointed out ways in which previously uncredited carbon sinks, like upland bogs, will be counted for their immense carbon storage ability, which far outweighs any benefit from planting them with trees.
Mr Rung-Metzer said the Commission is looking at all the other ways in which farming emissions can be limited, whether through agro-forestry, better soil management or higher productivity farming systems. Better breeding and feeding regimes can also help here, he said. In terms of forestry, the Commission is looking at options such as types of woodland plantations, their suitability and more sustainable woodland management.
The next speaker was Gerry Lawson, a retired scientist from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (NERC), Edinburgh. He outlined the very complicated system by which scientists measure land emissions using satellite data. He said Europe has “ a great deal of experience in LULUCF accounting” and that it has the “potential to export this expertise”. He outlined six categories of land countries are obliged to account for, namely cropland, wetland, forest land, settlements, other land and grassland.
Mr Lawson suggested that at present 'fake forestry credits' are being perceived as “a way of hiding emissions” and that one objective of LULUCF is to remove inconsistencies from the assessment methodologies. One of these will be to replace the Land Parcel Identification System (LPIS) by using satellite photography which has up to 50cm resolution. While this might be seen as invasive, Mr Lawson said personal data is not shared and it is a very useful tool. When combined with soil data scientists can now work out detailed estimates of carbon sequestration. He said this will also benefit soil health as a healthy soil loses less carbon.
There were chances for audience members to offer feedback and ask questions. All of the speakers stayed for the duration of the event and they passed questions to one another as they saw fit, which made it seem like a very open debate. Jason Fitzgerald of the IFDL complained about the way in which Ireland implements European law. He likened it to a carrot and two stick approach, particularly with regard to hen harrier designation which left many farms virtually worthless, but failed to live up to its promise of compensating landowners. He said assurances given were reneged on and inquiries were answered to the effect that there was no demand for funding a new CAP for 2020. He said farmers “are willing to engage with anybody and anything once they are told the truth”. There was an applause to his speech which ended with the heart-rending story of a man who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer who said he only wanted to know that his family would be able to sell up when he died and be able to survive.
Tom Gunning of the Irish Farm Family group agreed, adding, “it's alright to think about the environment and the world but you also have to think about the person”. He said if a farmer enters into an environmental scheme “he must be compensated properly”. Luke Flanagan then said the reason he had organised the conference was to give people an awareness of policy changes coming down the track so they could prepare themselves, whether by organising or by otherwise ensuring that Irish implementation would lead to proper compensation for wildlife schemes.
Regarding Greening, Gerry Lawson admitted that an integrated land use pillar would have been better, but that farmers and foresters wanted to keep farming and forestry separate. This was part of the disconnect between the two industries. He said Greening hasn't worked too well within Pillar I and he hopes that with Pillar II farmers can get together in groups to do some data measurement together. Irish authorities seem to refer all questions and complaints back to Europe, but this was dismissed by Mr Rung-Metzger who said that implementation of European policy suggestions, rests entirely with the state.
This discussion was followed by a fascinating presentation by Patrick Worms, Senior Science Policy Advisor with the World Agroforestry Centre. He presented a strong argument with scientific data to back it up, that agroforestry offers a means of increasing land productivity while reducing carbon losses and bolstering its ability to withstand extreme weather events like droughts, floods and storms. He said one of the major impediments to Irish agroforestry is the 100 trees rule, by which land is automatically designated as forestry when a certain coverage of trees is identified. A more detailed relay of his presentation is justified and readers can look forward to that soon.
To close the event Eddie Punch of the ICSA spoke about the challenges facing Ireland's cattle and sheep producers in the face of impending climate change restrictions. He said his organisation's members are willing to take their share of the burden but he questioned the need for Europe to lead, saying it's like two fellas rolling out a silage cover and one is sweating so much when he looks up he sees the other one is dawdling. He said that targets look simple but the reality is very complicated. He pointed out that if land use changes are implemented and we end up producing less food as a result, chances are higher carbon systems in other countries will make up the shortfall.
Artur Rung-Metzger responded that Europe is working with the situation as it stands. He reminded attendees that UN data is predicting climate change impacts to strengthen. He said that the Paris deal is a weak deal but countries like Brazil and Argentina are signing up. He added that while mitigation is being slowly implemented, it is up to Europe as one of the world's wealthiest blocs to lead the world as we have some of the best data sets to find solutions.