Sector trends

Northern Ireland agriculture outlook: it’s time to reduce the carbon footprint

Cormac McKervey, our Senior Agriculture Manager/Climate Lead, shares his insights on the need for Northern Ireland’s agriculture sector to increase efforts to meet carbon emissions goals.

It’s time to put a carbon reduction transition plan in place

There are various industry initiatives underway in Northern Ireland to develop a better understanding of the source and extent of carbon emissions on farms. By enhancing understanding of carbon emissions, measuring emissions, and analysing data, it is believed the agri-sector can help drive Northern Ireland’s efforts to mitigate climate change and contribute solutions necessary for climate, nature and health. 

At a recent Dairy Council for Northern Ireland meeting, CEOs from our three biggest milk buyers talked emphatically about the impact of farm businesses on the climate, and climate’s impact on farming. 

Competitors are already involved in reducing carbon, and many farmers have started their own journey. Arla’s CEO, for example, described how it is offering dairy farmers incentives to maintain a set of sustainability practices. 

Although it can sometimes be challenging to adhere to these guidelines, there’s a cash incentive as well as an environmental value to it. My view is that if there’s an incentive to get on board, to embrace the carbon challenge and develop a plan to get carbon emissions down, there’s possibly less chance of getting left behind or being penalised later. 

We all recognise that when we talk about sustainability, we should plan for economic sustainability as well as the environment. It’s not just one-way traffic: farmers need to make a profit as well. They need support and the right tools to continue producing high-quality, nutritious food while reducing their environmental impact.

Understanding the Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022

The Climate Change Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 received Royal Assent on 6 June 2022 and includes a target for net zero emissions by 2050, as well as a set of interim targets for 2030 and 2040 for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Northern Ireland.

A Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) representative recently told us that targets for farms over the next five years will soon be set. That’s where it will really hit home for farmers because we will know targets for dairy, poultry and so on, and how we’re expected to reduce emissions. 

DAERA had a clear message for farmers: the £300m foreign payment Northern Ireland receives now we have left the EU will be used to move towards a new, sustainable direction.

Farmers will not keep getting paid in the same way for doing the same things they’ve always done. Now is the time for them to start on a sustainability journey – if they haven’t done so already. This message ties with our own green agenda and green lending for businesses with sustainability ambitions.

Enhancing sustainability within the Northern Ireland agri-food sector

At Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute’s Carbon and Beyond conference, Professor Elizabeth Magowan, Director of the institute’s Sustainable Agri-Food Sciences Division, said: “Against the backdrop of global and local challenges, the need for us to actively harmonise the relationship between our agri-food industry, and our environmental and societal health has never been greater.”

The conference offered a message of hope: that improved farm management and improved breeding and feed, for example, could help cut the levels of methane that beef and sheep expel by upwards of 30%. 

And attendees were told how well Northern Ireland has done: 50% of our electrical needs now come from renewable sources, most notably wind. Farmers can be part of the solution – the soil on our land can store carbon. Equally, farmers have a huge role to play in terms of lowering emissions. It’s time to get off those starting blocks and move. And we’re here to help guide you.

More efficiency equals lower carbon

Future agricultural policy proposals and sustainability measures for Northern Ireland, driven by DAERA, include farmers taking steps to reduce carbon emissions by slaughtering cattle at a younger age. There will be a potential negative subsidy if there is insufficient movement towards a younger slaughter age. 

Farmers are also adopting science-based solutions by pursuing other practices that help reduce carbon emissions and improve efficiency. These include more days at grass for cattle, reducing calving intervals, and improved machinery to handle slurry and manures. Research has shown, for example, that a reduction in first calving age from 36 to 24 months can reduce emissions intensity by up to 6.9% (source: Future Agricultural Policy Proposals For Northern Ireland Jan 2022).

The other key driver is customers and the supply chain. Customers and buyers are asking for information on the level of carbon emissions and what measures are being taken to reduce these.

Across Northern Ireland, there’s a support network to help farmers make that jump and plan for the long term. We’re part of that support infrastructure and believe it’s time to help Northern Ireland deliver climate action.

Ulster Bank is ready to offer support to farmers, through funds available to lend as well as team expertise. For more information and insights on agriculture, visit Ulster Bank.

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