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

<span>Photograph: EyeEm/Alamy</span>
Photograph: EyeEm/Alamy

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 in farm animals comes after the passing of the ​​jurisdiction’s first ever climate act, requiring the farming sector to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and reduce methane emissions by almost 50% over the same period.

About a third of human-caused methane emissions come from livestock, mostly from the burps and manure of beef and dairy cattle. Analysis by KPMG, commissioned by industry representatives including the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU), estimates more than 500,000 cattle and about 700,000 sheep would need to be lost in order for Northern Ireland to meet the new climate targets.

Separate analysis by the UK government’s climate advisers suggests chicken numbers would also need to be cut by 5 million by 2035. Both the pig and poultry sectors in Nothern Ireland have seen rapid growth in the past decade.

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

Northern Ireland has for some years been the only devolved administration without dedicated climate legislation and targets for emissions reduction. The region’s agrifood industry and associated farming groups have long raised concerns about the expected impact of emissions reductions.

Agriculture accounts for about 27% of Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the vast majority coming from livestock. Its heavily export-driven meat industry principally supplies Great Britain, but it also exports to China and North America.

The country’s principal poultry processor, Moy Park (a subsidiary of the Brazilian meat giant JBS), has grown into one of Europe’s biggest such firms and Northern Ireland’s largest company, while the Armagh-based JMW Farms pig producer saw its gross turnover nearly treble to £54m between 2011 and 2020.

A spokesperson for 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.”

Ewa Kmietowicz, head of the land use mitigations team at the Climate Change Committee (CCC), said: “If you look at the evidence on the lifecycle of greenhouse gas emissions, the red meat livestock sources – beef, dairy, sheep – have the highest emissions because they’re ruminant and they have high methane emissions.

“But pigs and poultry also have a lot of indirect emissions through fodder growth and supply. A lot of food for pigs is imported in the UK, which wouldn’t necessarily impact on UK territorial emissions, but it’s still important because we don’t want to increase consumption emissions for the UK.”

Chris Stark, CCC chief executive, told the Guardian that a switch to arable farming would probably be necessary if food production levels are to remain the same in Northern Ireland. “A condition in our modelling is that we produce the same amount of food per head in 2050,” he said. “But it’s very difficult to do this unless you see a change in farming practice, and especially unless you see a shift in arable farming versus livestock.

Related: Northern Ireland could become ‘dirty corner of Europe’, say campaigners

“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.”

The devolved Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has been contacted for comment.

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