The latest greenhouse gas (GHG) emission projections for Northern Ireland (NI) confirm that agriculture is lagging behind the rest of the economy – and society – where this critically important issue is concerned.

And I just wonder if statistics for the rest of the island relate a similar story.

Looking ahead, the latest projection is that GHG emissions in NI will reduce by 32% between 1990 and 2030. However, the official figures also confirm that agriculture, as a standalone sector, is bucking this overall trend significantly.

NI greenhouse gas emissions

From 1990 to 2019, NI’s farming sectors increased emissions by 8%. With the current projections, emissions for this sector are expected to reduce by 3% between 2019 and 2030.

This gives an overall projected increase in emissions from the agriculture sector of 4% between 1990 and 2030.

Agriculture was the largest source of emissions for NI in 2019 at 26%. This share is expected to increase to 31% in 2030 as other sectors reduce emissions at a faster rate.

Dairy farmers tackling emissions

On the upside, the north’s processing sectors keep pointing out that dairy farmers, in particular, are becoming more efficient.

The most recent figures indicate that 1.12kg of carbon dioxide (CO2) is created per litre of milk produced. The comparable figure for the UK as a whole is 1.23kg.

But in reality, this is just papering over the cracks.

The last few weeks have seen farmers protesting at Stormont, demanding climate change legislation for NI that would recognise both the food production capacity of farming and the industry’s ability to deliver for the environment.

I totally buy-in to the principle of production agriculture being at the heart of a food security narrative, particularly given the actions of the Russian state in Ukraine over recent days.

There is no reason why food production levels in NI should be reduced. And the same principle holds for the rest of the island.

But, from an environmental perspective, it’s now obvious that the talking has to stop. Farming has to start delivering in spades, where climate change is concerned. And the clock is ticking.   

However, the industry cannot do this with one hand tied behind its back. It must be supported in ways that will make change at farm level real and tangible.

The good news is that we all know what the final end game will be. As farmers become more efficient, GHG emission levels will drop accordingly.

Making this happen will require the better implementation of the improved management systems that we already know about, while also making provision for the ‘fast implementation’ of the new technologies that are coming down the track.