Like many of the 150 or so heads of state gathered in Paris last week for the opening of the UN summit on climate change, Taoiseach Enda Kenny had his few minutes of fame on the rostrum addressing the delegates.
All sane people now agree that global warming has reached a critical point and that unless the countries of the world can produce a strategy to reduce it and prevent further climate change, the future for our children is grim. Everyone at the conference in Paris accepts that and many of the leaders, including President Obama, made the point that failure to act immediately is no longer an option if we want to save the planet.
Given the seriousness of what confronts us, there was a lot of interest here in what Kenny would have to say. And what he did say in his short speech last week made some environmentally conscious people here rather uncomfortable.
Kenny said that all countries have to take action to address climate change and that Ireland would play its part. He also pointed out that we have a special problem in Ireland because of the importance of farming here and in particular the cattle and dairy sector which produce huge amounts of carbon dioxide and, worse, methane.
In fact methane is one of worst of the greenhouse gases, 20 times worse than carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere, and our belching and farting cows produce tons of it. Although it does leave the atmosphere within a decade, it is a very intense contributor to the warming of the atmosphere in the short term.
Not many people realize this, but agriculture around the world produces between 15 and 20 percent of all the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. Cattle and cows produce even more greenhouse gases than vehicles on the roads around the world. Scientists measure methane, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases together in carbon dioxide equivalent units, and in countries where there is a lot of agriculture the totals can be scary.
Across the EU, agriculture accounts for 12 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, but here in Ireland it is 33 percent, mainly because of the size of our national herd. So it's nearly three times as bad in Ireland as the European average.
On top of that is our plan, announced earlier this year, to increase our dairy production by a massive 50 percent by 2020, which is going to mean an extra 300,000 cows here in the next five years in addition to all the cattle we already have.
On the one hand, of course, the world needs more food, and Ireland's green and fertile land makes us uniquely qualified to help produce that. That is why agriculture is already such a big part of our economy, with one in every 10 jobs here depending on it.
But on the other hand it means that proportionately we are the worst country in Europe for producing greenhouse gas from agriculture. And making our problem even worse is the fact that over 90 percent of all the energy we use in Ireland right now comes from greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels (oil, coal, peat, wood etc), compared with around 75 percent across the EU.
So we have a major problem in doing our bit to combat climate change. Our dependence on agriculture puts us in a difficult position.
And the upcoming election here, now just a couple of months away and predicted to be very tight, puts Kenny in a difficult position because he does not want to lose the votes of our 140,000 farmers, many of whom are traditional supporters of his Fine Gael party.
Which is why Kenny in his speech in Paris qualified his support for the global warming reduction measures that need to be agreed at the climate change conference. He reminded delegates that Ireland has been through a financial crash and said we will not be able to meet what he called the "aggressive targets" already set by the EU to reduce farming emissions until after 2020 when our economy has fully recovered.
Speaking to reporters at the conference, Kenny said that the existing European Commission targets to reduce emissions from agriculture by 2020 were unrealistic. He said the commission had overestimated the contribution that the agri-food sector could make to a reduction, and that since Ireland produced food more sustainably than other countries it should be treated as a special case.
"We have lost a decade of investment in our country because of what happened [the financial crash]. That cannot be recovered, and until we have an economic engine to allow us to change structures and continue to invest in research and innovation for more sustainable ways of doing agriculture, that presents us with a challenge," Kenny said.
"We don't want to see a situation where we are limited in what we can produce [only] to find that food is being produced in other countries with inferior standards and higher emissions levels."
To be fair to Kenny, he has a point. Because of our moderate climate and copious rainfall, we are one of the best countries in the world for growing grass.
So our cattle and cows spend most of their time in lush pasture rather than feedlots. Our agriculture is more natural than in other countries where huge amounts of fertilizer and feed (the production of which release carbon dioxide) are needed to achieve the same amount of meat or milk.
But in the bigger picture arguments like this don't carry much weight these days given the crisis the world is facing. Many people here -- and not just the Greens -- found the taoiseach's remarks embarrassing.
He seemed to be saying that we deserve to be treated as a special case and that we may not be able to meet whatever targets are agreed in Paris at least until after 2020 -- and even then we're not certain what we will be able to do.
Given the complex discussions now taking place in Paris on how to allow developing countries (like India) to catch up with the West, which means more emissions, while getting people in the rich countries to accept major changes in the way they live, to produce lower emissions, Kenny’s speech seemed blinkered and small minded.
Some wise crackers here immediately suggested that Ireland's attitude showed that, just like all national politics, all global eco-politics are local as well. Watching Kenny make this case made us look very petty indeed.
Here we are, despite our recent problems one of the richest countries in the world, telling the poorest countries in the world that we can't do our bit. And we are doing this at a time when global warming is already causing catastrophe in poorer countries in Africa and elsewhere.
One commentator at the talks in Paris suggested that Ireland producing even more milk powder to encourage mothers in China and poorer countries to abandon breastfeeding is not something we should be doing. And instead of mass producing cattle to put cheap cuts of meat into foreign supermarkets, we should be capitalizing on our green credentials and producing high quality, organic and more expensive meat in smaller quantities.
All of this, if you will pardon the pun, feeds into the wider discussion about the role that diet will play in helping to solve the problem of global warming. A switch by people around the world to a vegetarian diet even on a few days each week would have a huge impact on cattle and cow numbers, greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It's not the kind of thing that Irish farmers want to hear, but it's an important factor in the situation we all face.
By the end of last week, the conference in Paris had produced a draft report on what could be agreed by leaders of countries around the world to tackle the problem. The speed with which this was done indicates a new awareness of how urgent taking action has become.
But of course there is still major work to be done before all the countries at the conference can agree on a plan and, more important, begin to implement it.
Ironically, this past weekend also saw a major storm pass over Ireland, with power lines knocked out and torrential rain, particularly in the West -- it was so bad that a clip of RTE reporter Teresa Mannion's hysterical coverage of the storm from Galway has gone viral. But even while we all sniggered at her over the top reporting, there was the uncomfortable realization that such storms will be much more common in the future if we don't act now. Talk about hollow laughter.
The fact is that the Irish government -- and the next government is unlikely to be different -- still intends to ramp up agriculture production here in the years ahead. There are vague suggestions that we can plant more forests to soak up carbon dioxide and we can farm cows and cattle in better ways so they produce less greenhouse gases, particularly methane. But these are sticking plaster approaches to a condition that requires major surgery and a radical shift in thinking.
We are also committed to reducing emissions produced by transport and energy use in homes and industry but again, while these may help us to some extent to comply with whatever is agreed in Paris, they are dwarfed by the unique problem Ireland has because of the relative size of agriculture in our economy.
The difficulty we face was exposed again in Paris on Monday when our Environment Minister Alan Kelly said the demand by some nations to limit temperature rise to 1.5C will be too hard to achieve. He said this target could be stated in the final treaty as a goal to aim for. “1.5C is extremely ambitious -- we should walk before we run,” Kelly said.
There are no easy answers to this one. Avocado toast anyone?