Every country, including Ireland, will have to be prepared to take hard decisions if we are to deal with climate change, writes Kevin Fitzgibbon
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released its latest report. It has the fairly boring title of Special Report 15, or ‘SR15’ — hardly a name to get anyone excited. But inside, it makes for sober reading.
The main message is that we have a very short time in which we can do something meaningful to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change. The key phrases here are ‘short time’, and ‘to avoid the worst’. Translation: there will already be some harsh negative impacts, and there is nothing we can do to prevent that now.
Because of the carbon already in the air after our 150-year fossil-fuel binge, and the continuing rate of addition to it, we are on course to increase the average temperature of the planet by at least 2C by about 2050-2060.
Whether it rises far above that level depends very much on what the global human tribe decides to do over the next short number of years.
As for impacts, there will definitely be a certain amount of sea level rise, although exact predictions up to 2100 (a year often chosen as a horizon for predictions) vary dramatically.
Sea level is predicted to rise by one metre over the next 50-80 years (depending on the forecast you read). It will not stop there, and societies around the world will have to cope with ongoing rise of the oceans long into the future. And there will be significant changes in climate for individual countries.
Ireland is not immune. We do not have a full picture of course, but they include:
Increased flood risk in low-lying coastal towns and cities.
Heavier rainfall in stronger storms.
Longer dry spells without rain.
Disruption to agriculture.
It is no coincidence that the country has experienced most of these effects already in 2018 alone. Our flood defences, drainage systems and water supply systems simply aren’t designed to cope with these expected changes, as we have witnessed over the past year.
All of this means there will be much more investment needed to protect our cities and towns from these threats, in the medium- to long-term.
However, for Ireland, these messages from the report are only the starting point.
The main message is that we need to change the way we operate in the world very dramatically, over the next 10 to 30 years. The most important thing we need to do is break our fossil fuel habit, as soon as possible — the entire world, not just one country, or even the EU and China. The report describes four pathways we could follow to do that. Let’s start with the common elements, and what they mean for us.
First, in line with Bord na Móna’s announcement, we need to stop using peat and coal for power stations. In fact, decarbonising the power sector almost completely is one of the first things that such pathways assume.
That would mean committing to not using fossil-fuel natural gas or oil either. So what options would that leave us? For sure, part of the solution is more wind and solar power, probably with very large energy storage for the calm or dark periods.
Storage could be in batteries, or large-scale pumped-storage of water up into dammed-off mountain valleys. But there would be environmental impacts from such solutions. Are we ready to face that?
We will also need more power interconnectors to France and perhaps Norway, to give us more options than just the UK interconnectors, as we have at present. A very different approach would be to use limited nuclear power, with small-scale reactors that would not overwhelm our grid. How many in Ireland are willing to contemplate that option seriously?
The challenge is even greater in transport. Electric vehicles which don’t use fossil fuel are on the increase — although they will need electricity too. But for larger vehicles, there’s also gas-powered engines, perhaps using biogas made in digesters from biological material.
We could get a certain amount of biogas from food and animal wastes, and possibly from low-grade wood waste; but not enough to completely replace natural gas. To get a far more meaningful amount, we would have to use much of our grassland’s output to feed the digesters. But would Ireland really accept the knock-on impact on agriculture, a major element of our economy?
Another option is radical energy efficiency. The idea here is to cut our per-capita energy use to much lower levels than at present. This would be about more than energy-efficient buildings.
It would require changes in our personal way of life as well — fewer plane journeys, more-localised food production, switching to lower-impact food types, and rethinking our patterns of consumption.
Finally, there are the technology-based parts of the possible solutions. Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS) is a major hope of some of the pathways. This imagines a cost-effective technology to hoover up carbon from the air — or maybe from the flue-stacks of legacy fossil-fuel power plants — converting it into a stable form like gypsum, and probably burying it.
However, CSS has been under development for many years, and no system is yet being deployed at anything like the scale required, mostly because it can’t be made to pay for itself.
So, all in all, we should sit up and take notice of the SR15 report. It paints a stark picture, but it is intended to be a call to action, not despair.
The action it calls for needs to be urgent and focussed, to tackle the root cause of climate change: reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero, quickly.
On a positive note, this will mean developing innovative business opportunities. But the action needs to be international and co-ordinated, which is a big ask in these times of increasing nationalistic rhetoric, and self-interested policies being pursued by powerful countries.
As individuals and as a society, we can and must hold out a different vision. To avoid the worst outcomes, we will have difficult questions to face and hard decisions to make.
We can’t duck them for much longer. The stakes are too high.
Kevin Fitzgibbon is the co-ordinator of the Water Systems & Services Innovation Centre, an initiative supported by Cork City Council, Cork County Council and Cork Institute of Technology to foster innovation for Irish water-related companies.