Northern Ireland Assembly’s first climate act will require the farming sector to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050
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.
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.”