We are one of the only EU countries in which greenhouse gases are rising and we are likely to miss our 2020 targets, writes Cara Augustenborg.
IN October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report on the likely impacts if the world warms by 1.5˚C, the target agreed by almost all of the world’s governments in the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
Having already warmed 1˚C since the start of the industrial revolution, the Earth is well on its way to exceeding 1.5˚C.
Even if all the United Nations’ members achieve their nationally determined contributions to the goals of the Paris Agreement, we are still looking toward a world that will be 2.7˚C warmer by the end of the century than it was in the 1850s.
The IPCC’s latest report says that by 2030, emissions need to be 45% below what they were in 2010 to stay under 1.5˚C.
That estimate gives us just 11 to 12 years to rapidly decarbonise and avoid climate catastrophe.
Such an extreme transformation is the price we pay for delaying. Fortunately, much of the world has already begun to embrace the transition to a low-carbon economy.
In 2015, Costa Rica achieved a record-breaking 75 days on renewable energy sources; Denmark is progressing to a low-carbon future, with residents in Copenhagen already producing half the greenhouse gas emissions of the OECD average; and Iceland, who suffered a similar banking-related economic collapse to Ireland, credits their economic recovery to investment in green energy.
Some of the world’s least-developed countries (such as Ethiopia, Bangladesh, and Bhutan) are leap-frogging the old carbon-based economic model in favour of the new, low-carbon economy, similar to how they embraced mobile-phone technology over landline phones.
Ireland remains one of the only European Union countries that continues to lag, with greenhouse gas emissions rising rather than declining. Ireland’s fuel mix for electricity generation is dominated by carbon-based fossil fuels (83%), including gas (48%), coal (22%), peat (12%), and oil (1%).
In 2013, then Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, defined a low-carbon society as “near-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, in the case of energy, buildings and transport, and carbon neutrality, in the case of agriculture.”
Currently, energy, transport, and agriculture emit approximately 20%, 19%, and 32% of total Irish greenhouse gas emissions, respectively. Ireland has the third-highest emissions per capita for residential energy use in the EU and total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been increasing by over 3.5% per year since 2015.
No matter how ‘low-carbon’ society is defined, Ireland is still a long way away from realising it.
Ireland’s first legislation to address climate change was the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act of 2015.
The act was intended to “provide certainty surrounding government policy and provide a clear pathway for [greenhouse gas] emissions reductions”. It referenced the Government’s National Policy Position on achieving near-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 in the case of energy, buildings, and transport, and carbon neutrality in agriculture.
The legislation forced the Government to publish their first National Mitigation Plan in over eight years. However, the plan was weak in measurable impact and criticised by NGOs and the Government’s own Climate Change Advisory Council, who warned that the actions in the National Mitigation Plan were “not sufficient to put Ireland on a pathway to achieve our 2020 targets or our long-term decarbonisation objective”.
The council explained that, “if Ireland does not introduce major new policies and measures, it will miss its 2020 targets”, resulting in large EU fines, estimated at up to €455m.
On its current trajectory, Ireland will also miss the proposed, 2030 EU decarbonisation targets.
Ireland’s troubling increase in greenhouse gas emissions is largely due to a booming economy, which (unlike most other EU countries) failed to decouple from fossil-fuel consumption when it had the chance.
Government policies to promote intensification of beef and dairy farming; to prioritise road construction over sustainable transport options; and to continue burning peat and coal for energy are leading the country in the wrong direction.
Most recently, the Government rejected the advice of their Climate Change Advisory Council to impose a modest carbon tax in Budget 2018 to kick start a low-carbon direction of travel and simultaneously address fuel poverty.
Such a tax was also recommended by the Citizens’ Assembly in 2017, when they considered ‘How Ireland can be a leader in tackling climate change’, demonstrating that the people are further ahead than the politicians in understanding the urgent need to transition to a low-carbon economy and a willingness to make sacrifices to encourage that transition.
In October 2018, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment called the Irish Government’s failure to take more effective measures to address climate change “a breach of Ireland’s human rights obligations”, stating that the Government “must take additional actions on an urgent basis on climate change”, and concluding that “climate change clearly and adversely impacts the right to life, a right which the Government of Ireland is legally obligated to respect, protect, and fulfil”.
Friends of the Irish Environment is now taking a legal case against the Government to ask the High Court “to quash and remit the inadequate 2017 National Mitigation Plan, in order that it can be remade to protect these fundamental human rights”.
With a clock counting down toward 1.5˚C of planetary warning, there is an urgent need for Ireland to enact new policies and measures to bend the country’s greenhouse gas emissions curve downward and move onto a sustainable path to 2050.
The Government’s Climate Change Advisory Council has recommended several measures, including a substantial increase in the carbon tax; phasing out coal and peat for heating and power-generation; more investment in clean public transport and electric vehicles; improved planning to minimise commuting; and urgent implementation of decarbonisation measures in the agricultural sector.
A major obstacle to implementing such measures is the dearth of analysis and governance to plan for such transition.
For example, the agricultural research body, Teagasc’s work is dominated by improving livestock farming rather than diversifying out of such climate-intensive farming practices and into horticulture, organic farming, or agro-forestry.
Over 30% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture, making it unique as a developed country with a developing country’s emissions profile.
Ireland has strengths that offer opportunities for it to become a leader in addressing the challenge of climate change in agriculture, but Ireland needs to reduce absolute emissions from the sector.
Based on future climate projections, Europe will experience increasing drought over the coming years and such conditions have already taken a significant toll on food production. In the long-term, Ireland may have to produce more food to help support the rest of Europe and should focus on producing food products that will be needed in Europe and appropriate to Ireland’s changed climate.
Ireland’s current focus on infant formula for the Chinese market is clearly not one of those products. Irish agricultural policy must stop putting short-term financial gains above the long-term well-being of the Irish landscape, environment, public health, and climate projections.
For GHG emissions from the agricultural sector to decline, while simultaneously increasing profit, there is an urgent need to develop alternative agricultural models, away from the Government’s business-as-usual approach to intensifying livestock farming.
Similarly, in transport, while some efforts have been made to incentivise electric vehicle (EV) purchase, the public charging infrastructure has been neglected to the point of discouraging prospective buyers, unless they have a second, fossil-fuel based car for long-haul trips.
While the Government’s long-term commitment to ban the purchase of new diesel or petrol vehicles, from 2030, sounds ambitious, without a realistic action plan to transform charging infrastructure, this commitment is nothing more than a dream.
A wholly electrified transport system must be constructed over the next three decades, including both electric cars and an electrified public transport system.
Most importantly, cycling must be part of the transition.
There are many co-benefits in cycling, beyond its role in addressing climate change. Cycling could contribute to solving Ireland’s obesity and mental health crises, and economically struggling high streets.
There is evidence to show that people who cycle are healthier, less prone to depression, and more inclined to stop and shop.
In Copenhagen, 45% of the population use bikes for their daily commute, while, in Dublin, we’re at less than 6%. Last year, Ireland spent less than 1.5% of the transport budget on sustainable transport (mostly in the form of safe cycling education for children).
Last May, the EPA reported that transport emissions, on current levels, will have increased 13%-19% by 2020.
Hard questions must be asked about how and when transport will contribute to the low-carbon transition. The same can be said for the Government’s pledge to replace large-scale peat production with alternative energy sources by 2030, which has been referred to by activists as decidedly unambitious, creating a ‘fire sale’ over the next 12 years that will result in most of the peat being harvested in that time.
A lack of planning in household energy consumption is also apparent in Government policy. Ambitious regulations coming from the EU Buildings Directive will require new buildings to be designed to nearly zero energy building standards by 2021, leading to a 50% to 60% improvement, in terms of energy efficiency and reduction in CO2 emissions.
Two million existing homes in Ireland will need retrofit, which requires a new national renovation strategy. At an average cost of €28,000 per home for deep energy retrofit, this is a significant technical and financial challenge, further exacerbated by the country’s current housing crisis, which prioritises speed in construction over energy efficiency.
One advantage of Ireland’s self-proclaimed label as a ‘climate laggard’ is that there is no shortage of ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when starting from such poor performance. Solutions exist for every sector.
Aside from the positive benefits to climate change of moving to a low-carbon economy, there are numerous other social benefits, such as employment growth and greater social equity, through increased energy and food sovereignty and improved public health from discontinuing the burning of fossil fuels.
The technology already exists for Ireland to become a low-carbon society and, through the production of its own renewable energy and less dependency on fossil fuel imports, to become more stable economically and have higher employment and investment potential than Ireland’s current system.
The only missing piece is the planning and governance required to implement those solutions at a scale that can measurably reduce GHG emissions. Irish society is designed to function within a narrow environmental envelope.
When that environment fails, it impacts everything about the way people live and work.
Risk of extreme storms on the west coast of Ireland is now up 25%, due to climate change. Fodder crises, due to extreme weather, are becoming a regular occurrence.
Over 260 homes were flooded in December of 2015 and will continually be at risk as the climate continues to warm.
Combine this with the thousands of homes and businesses that are at risk due to sea-level rise and Ireland will have another kind of housing crisis on its hands, due to climate displacement.
After the 2015 floods, then Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, proposed relocating those who live in high-risk flooding areas, but the Stern review has shown that the benefits of strong, early action to address climate change are a better option. As the Earth’s temperature rises, so, too, will the cost of adaptation, and residual damages will remain inevitable, which the State must begin preparing for to protect citizens.
Israel’s first female prime minister, Golda Meir, regarded as one of the most accomplished women of the twentieth century, once said, “I must govern the clock, not be governed by it”.
The clock is unavoidable, but what Ireland’s government does with its limited remaining time is up to us. We control the activities we choose in that time and we must do something to reduce our country’s greenhouse gas emissions immediately.
- Dr Cara Augustenborg is chairperson of Friends of the Earth Europe and a lecturer in climate change and corporate sustainability at UCD and the National College of Ireland.
- Published courtesy of Social Justice Ireland.
Patrick V Verkooijen
For anyone still undecided about the consequences of global warming, the summer of 2018, one of the hottest on record, should have tipped the scales. Regions are struggling with the fallout from large-scale climate-related events.
In the southern United States, cities and towns pummeled by Hurricane Florence in September were still drying out when Hurricane Michael brought more flooding in October. In California, firefighters are battling the embers of the largest wildfire in state history. And in parts of Latin America, Europe, Africa, and Asia, agricultural output is in freefall following months of stifling heat.
Cooler weather has done little to ease the suffering. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “moderate” to “exceptional” drought conditions cover 25.1% of the United States. But “extreme” and “exceptional” drought – the worst categories – expanded to cover 6.3% of the country, up from 6% in mid-September. Regions in Australia also are struggling with the worst drought in a generation.
In fact, for a growing number of people around the world, floods, landslides, and heatwaves – Japan’s summer in a nutshell – is the new normal. A recent study in the journal PLOS Medicine, projects a fivefold increase in heat-related deaths in the US by 2080; the outlook for poorer countries is even worse.
The climate debate is no longer about causes; fossil fuels and human activity are the culprits. Rather, the question is how billions of at-risk people and businesses can rapidly adapt and ensure their communities are resilient. Even if the world meets the Paris climate agreement’s target of limiting the increase in global temperature to 2º Celsius relative to pre-industrial levels, adaptation will still be critical, because climate extremes are now the new normal.
Some communities have already recognised this, and local adaptation is well underway. In Melbourne, Australia, for example, planners are working to double the city’s tree canopy by 2040, an approach that will lower temperatures and reduce heat-related deaths.
Similarly, in Ahmedabad, a city of over seven million people in Western India, authorities have launched a major initiative to cover roofs in reflective paint to lower temperatures on “heat islands,” urban areas that trap the sun’s warmth and make city living unbearable, even at night. These are just two of the many infrastructural responses that communities around the world have undertaken.
But adapting to climate change will also mean managing the long-term economic fallout of extreme weather, and this is a requirement that countries are only beginning to take seriously.
Consider water scarcity. According to a 2016 World Bank analysis, drought-related water crises in Africa and the Middle East could reduce GDP in these regions by as much as 6% by 2050. That would be painful anywhere, but it would be devastating in regions already rife with turmoil and humanitarian crises.
At the same time, rising sea levels will cause severe damage to coastal areas. The decline in property values will have far-reaching implications, not only for individual wealth, but also for the tax bases of communities and the industries that serve them.
A related concern is that homes and businesses globally will eventually become under-insured or even uninsurable, owing to the frequency of weather-related catastrophes. ClimateWise, a global network of insurance industry organizations, has already warned that the world is facing a $100 billion annual climate risk “protection gap”.
No single international organisation or authority has all the answers to the cascade of challenges that climate change has triggered. But some are taking key leadership roles and pushing governments and local communities to act with more urgency. One of the more promising initiatives to accelerate solutions, launched just this week, is the Global Commission on Adaptation, chaired by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva.
Over the next 15 years, the world will need to invest some $90 trillion in infrastructure. How these projects proceed, and whether they are designed with low-carbon features, could lead the world toward a more-climate resilient future – or they could undermine food, water, and security for decades to come.
- Patrick V Verkooijen is chief executive officer of the Global Center on Adaptation. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019
The UN office for disaster risk reduction said in a recent report that worldwide reported economic losses from earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, hurricanes and other climate-related disasters surged to total nearly $2.9 trillion (€2.55tn) over the past 20 years.
UNISDR, as the office is known, said the reported loss of resources and assets like homes, factories and farms due to more frequent and widespread climate-related disasters rose 151% compared to the previous 20-year period.
The following is a list of the biggest natural disasters of 2018:
It used to be that we simply didn’t like the look of rubbish bags blowing around our streets, but now it has become much more than that as plastics have entered the food chain and therefore are making their way into the human system.