In the week when it was revealed that one coal-fired power plant in Poland emits more greenhouse gas than all of Ireland, it was also encouraging for farmers who fear climate attacks on their livelihood that the Irish Climate Change Council advised the Government to target net zero emissions of long-lived gases by 2050, but that methane (the main gas from our agriculture) does not have to go to zero.
The council was invited by Minister for Communication, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton to advise for preparation of multi-annual carbon budgets, and for drafting legislation.
The council spelled out the shared goal following the Paris Agreement to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, and pursuing efforts to limit the increase to 1.5C.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report demonstrated that there is an effectively linear relationship between the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere and the amount of global warming.
Therefore, if the world wants to limit global warming, the total amount of CO2 that can be emitted to the atmosphere must be limited, and at some point, because it is a long-lived gas, CO2 emissions must at least reach net-zero —in other words, any remaining emissions must be balanced by removals of CO2 from the atmosphere.
The IPCC’s 2018 special report confirmed the necessity for emissions of CO2 to reach net zero in this century, in order to limit climate change to 1.5C or 2C.
That must mean the end of the power plant in Belchatów, Poland, emitting 40m tonnes of CO2 from burning 45m tonnes of coal per year.
This coal fired power plant in Poland’s town of Belchatów burns 45 Million tons of coal per year, producing 40 Million tons of CO2e. In other words, this one power plant emits more GHG than all of Ireland. | Spiegel Online pic.twitter.com/IMkMyYTeRU— Frank Mitloehner (@GHGGuru) December 15, 2019
Most scenarios for climate change limited to 1.5C require a very significant reduction by 2050 in emissions of nitrous oxide, by approximately 35%, and global emissions of methane must reduce by between 24% and 47%, from 2010 levels.
But a significant portion of the reduction in methane emissions can be achieved through elimination of fugitive emissions associated with fossil fuel extraction and distribution, advised the climate change council.
Further reductions need to be achieved through improvements in food production systems, and management of waste.
As methane is a short-lived gas, the remaining emissions do not need to be balanced by negative emissions.
“Based on analysis by the IPCC, it is not necessary that emissions of biogenic methane should reach net zero, nor would this be an attainable goal,” advised the climate change council.
Biogenic methane is that emitted by livestock when they eat vegetation. It stays in the atmosphere for about a decade, being converted to water vapour and carbon dioxide, which plants take back in from the atmosphere when they grow (the biogenic carbon cycle, which is a vital part of life on earth).
The Climate Change Council referred to an appropriate treatment of biogenic methane “in an Irish and an EU context”, and said the government needs to seek further, scientific advice on the appropriate target for emissions of biogenic methane in Ireland in 2050, before the identified target is enshrined in our climate mitigation legislation.
The council is the independent body established under the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015, tasked with assessing and advising how Ireland transitions to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050.
It says ambitious mitigation in Ireland has been hampered by the lack of binding long-term targets, and of co-ordination across sectors, but legislating for long-term targets and carbon budgets will increase policy stability and investor certainty.
It won’t be easy, as the COP 25 climate summit in Madrid showed. But the Irish Climate Change Council advice shows that action in Ireland will be based on objective scientific evidence that no-one can argue with.