The Mercosur deal has potential benefits for some areas of the Irish economy. This should not be to the detriment of other sectors, especially where there is an obvious environmental impact in addition to the economic impact.
The recent publication of the Climate Action Plan brought the challenge facing Ireland into sharp focus. By 2020 we were meant to have de-carbonised by 20%. Current projections suggest we will only have achieved 1%, which means we will need to reduce our emissions by up to 30% in the next 11 years. This is a large challenge for the country, one which will require changes to the way many sectors of our economy operate, including a move to renewable energy sources, retrofitting houses, and changes in the type of cars we drive.
The agricultural sector too must make changes. There is a recognition among many working in the agricultural sector that the expanding dairy and beef herds has an impact on emissions, and this must be addressed. Some of these changes are already underway, with investment in low emission slurry spreading, improvements in animal breeding to reduce emissions, afforestation, and better use of fertilisers. Much of this progress has been driven by research in Ireland.
The announcement of a conclusion to the Mercosur negotiations by the European Commission, and the details within the agreement, raised concerns within the agricultural sector. Competition from low-cost economies is always a challenge. What alarmed many though was the potential impact on the environment. With the emphasis on more environmentally friendly practices in Ireland, and across the European Union, it does not make sense to be incentivising the import of beef from South America. There is evidence that large parts of the rainforests have been removed to allow for beef production. The removal of this carbon sink, and replacement with high emission cattle production, undoes much of what is being done to address global carbon emissions.
The fact that the beef will have to be refrigerated and shipped across the Atlantic only exacerbates the environmental impact. The Climate Action Plan refers to how we are working at an EU level to reduce emissions in the shipping sector. It is counterproductive then to be welcoming an increase in shipping of a product that is already being produced in Europe.
In general terms I am in favour of free trade. It has the potential to increase trade and reduce global poverty. Any agreement must however take into consideration the impact on carbon emissions. The challenge and threat of global warming can only be addressed on a global level with each country and continent recognising what they can and must do to alleviate emissions. Elements of the Mercosur deal that are in conflict with this must be challenged over the next two years by the Irish government before it is put to the Trade Council and the European Parliament.