Research co-funded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has revealed that between 13,000ha and 40,000ha of forestry is required annually between 2025 and 2050 to counterbalance carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from agriculture. However, this calculation does not include methane emissions. The EPA has expressed concerns that the policy of carbon neutrality may be in jeopardy without immediate action to increase afforestation rates. These concerns were outlined in a recent submission by the EPA in response to a government request for expert evidence for the development of the Climate Action Plan 2024.
While the forestry sector plays a crucial role in removing CO2 from the atmosphere, the EPA has noted a significant decrease in the absolute value of this removal activity due to the age profile of Ireland’s national forestry stock. This reduction in removal value is attributed to two main factors. Firstly, there has been a substantial decrease in the area of land afforested compared to the 1990s and early 2000s. Secondly, significant afforestation has taken place on peat soils, which can result in large emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into the atmosphere. Recent research has indicated that these emissions are higher than initially estimated.
The EPA’s submission document highlights that the current afforestation rates of approximately 2,000ha per year fall well below the planned 8,000ha per year outlined in the 2023 Climate Action Plan. Combined with increased timber harvest, this will further diminish the ability of Irish forestry to contribute to CO2 emission removals in the future, according to the EPA. The document suggests that by 2025, the forestry sector in Ireland will actually become a source of GHG emissions.
To address this issue and achieve Ireland’s national climate objective, the EPA emphasizes the need to determine the extent of afforestation required and establish an appropriate target in the next Climate Action Plan. It is expected that this target will exceed the current planned 8,000ha per year. Recent research, co-funded by the EPA and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, indicates that between 13,000ha and 40,000ha of afforestation per year will be necessary from 2025 to 2050 to offset projected CO2 and N2O emissions from the agriculture sector, excluding methane emissions. The lower end of this range takes into account other actions, such as a 75% reduction in agricultural emissions and a substantial rewetting program for agricultural organic soils.
In conclusion, the EPA’s submission underscores the urgent need for increased afforestation rates in Ireland to combat greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture. Failure to take action in the short- to medium-term could jeopardize the country’s goal of carbon neutrality. The upcoming Climate Action Plan must set higher afforestation targets to ensure Ireland’s ability to remove CO2 and N2O emissions from the atmosphere and meet its national climate objectives.