Around one million sheep and cattle across Northern Ireland may have to be lost in order for the agricultural sector here to reach net-zero carbon emission targets.
The figures come from industry-commissioned analysis reported by the Guardian newspaper.
The analysis from KPMG, commissioned by those in the farming sector including the Ulster Farmer’s Union (UFU), suggests more than 500,000 cattle and around 700,000 sheep would need to be lost to meet the climate targets.
Further, work done by the UK Government’s climate advisers suggests chicken numbers would also need to be cut by 5 million by 2035 in Northern Ireland.
Last month the Northern Ireland Assembly passed climate change legislation committing the region to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
While there is an overall net-zero target, there is a separate reduction target of 46% for methane emissions, which are largely associated with the agricultural sector.
Northern Ireland has been an outlier in terms of climate change laws, having previously been the only part of the UK and Ireland without specific legislative commitments to reducing greenhouse gas output.
Livestock account for around a third of human-caused methane emissions and agriculture accounts for about 27% of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Earlier this year, KPMG reported more than 100,000 jobs linked to the sector would be vulnerable under the net-zero target and last year they predicted an £11bn reduction in economic output.
After the Assembly passed the legislation, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots described the net-zero target as a “headline” that was “aspirational”.
“The headline is there, and we will work with that as things stand,” he said.
The chief executive of the UK’s Climate Change Committee told the Guardian that Northern Ireland would likely have to “see a shift in arable farming versus livestock” in order to maintain current food production levels while meeting the climate targets
“So it’s a big challenge – and I’m interested to see what the executive comes up with now, since the majority of emissions come from animals. That will very soon come home to roost for Northern Ireland,” Chris Stark told the newspaper.
A spokesperson from KPMG said: “Under the [Climate Change Act’s] net-zero target, we have assumed that ‘beef and other cattle’, ‘dairy’ and ‘sheep’ do the most work to decarbonise due to these sectors accounting for the largest livestock-related impact on NI’s carbon emissions.
“Both the ‘pig’ and ‘poultry’ sectors have a minor impact on agriculture carbon emissions (2% and 1%, respectively) and, therefore, any effort to decarbonise can be assumed to have a minor impact on total carbon emissions.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture said: “Clause 1(3) of the Bill clarifies that the net zero ambition will not require a level of methane emissions reduction of more than 46% by 2050, which is consistent with the advice from the IPCC, the UK CCC’s Balanced Pathway recommendations and the ambition of the Paris Agreement to achieve long term temperature goals.”
They added: “The clarification in terms of the level of methane emissions reductions required and a number of additional supporting elements, including requirements around minimising the risk of carbon leakage and supporting a just transition, will ensure that the net zero ambition will not disadvantage our local food production, so that we can continue to have a thriving agriculture sector in NI.”