AT the Paris climate change conference this week, the symbolism was striking. The Eiffel Tower was bathed in messages of hope and peace. And the rhetoric was inspiring. Leader after leader stood up to pledge their nation to help fight climate change. “Never has the future of so many been in hands of so few,” said the UN’s climate change leader Christina Figueres.
The words of hope projected on to Eiffel Tower are not without foundation. Most of the countries attending this 21st Conference of the Parties (signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) have agreed emissions cuts in advance.
The groundwork has been done behind the scenes by Figueres and her team. A deal will be done that sets binding targets for global emissions of the gases that cause global warming. The big questions is whether it will be enough.
The conference is in part a response to the work done by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reports on the extent of climate change, its effects and possible mitigation measures.
Last year, the IPCC issued its fifth Assessment Report, which stated that continued emissions of greenhouses gases would cause “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts on people and ecosystems”. In layman’s terms, the IPCC says that we must halt the increase in emissions now and then gradually reduce them to zero over the coming decades. The Paris conference is really about who will cut their emissions, by how much, and by when.
If emissions (mostly of CO2, but also methane and other gases) are not cut sharply enough, the planet will warm by more than the 2C, that is considered safe. The pre-conference pledges of the various countries are not quite enough to keep warming below 2C (they amount to a 2.7-3C warming), so there is still work to be done in the side-rooms of the Le Bourget conference centre in Paris.
So where does Ireland stand? Well, from one point of view, Ireland is performing well on climate change. The Taoiseach gave an impressive speech in Paris on Monday, for instance, making all the right noises on the need for a binding international agreement on global emissions of greenhouse gases.
And this year, Ireland joined the growing number of countries that has passed a climate change bill.
Furthermore, the Taoiseach delivered an inspirational speech to the General Assembly of the UN in New York a year ago calling for concerted global action on climate change.
In Paris this week, Mr Kenny said that every nation — “big and small” — had to play its part, while in New York, he said that “the clock is ticking” and there was “no time to waste” in coming up with a global agreement.
Listening to Enda Kenny and Environment Minister Alan Kelly is quite soothing. Ireland has a “strong track record” on climate change, according to the Taoiseach. We have one of the most climate-friendly agricultural systems in the world, says Mr Kelly.
So, no problem there, then. If a global agreement on climate change is reached next week in Paris, Ireland will, you would think, be first in line to sign it.
Well, from another point of view, things are not so positive. Having said that there was no time to waste in tackling climate change on Monday, the Taoiseach said Ireland would need more “time and space” to meet the targets it has already signed up to.
Ireland is bound by the EU-wide targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 20pc of 2005 levels by 2020. Mr Kelly has said that this target was “unrealistic and unachievable” and that “Ireland will not be signing up to any future targets that would be unachievable.” In Paris, the Taoiseach called the 2020 targets “unreachable” and “unrealistic”.
Ireland is also bound by even greater cuts in emissions by a further 30% by 2030, a target the Environmental Protection Agency says we have no chance of meeting. We will then have to buy “carbon credits” at huge cost (at least €300m) to meet the targets.
The real sticking point for Ireland is agriculture. According to the EPA, transport and agriculture between them will account for 80%of Ireland’s emissions. Under the Government’s Harvest 2020 programme, there will be a huge expansion of our dairy herd, with a commensurate surge in emissions.
In Paris, the Taoiseach said that Irish agriculture would be carbon-neutral, and that the Government would be investing heavily in research to achieve this. This may have been some unintended sophistry on Mr Kenny’s part: the real problem with agriculture is methane emissions, not carbon.
The climate change bill making its way through the Dáil under the guidance of Mr Kelly is welcome, simply because it is some sort of climate legislation. However, as it does not set targets for each sector, and as its advisory council is Government-appointed, it has been criticised as toothless.
Despite the pageantry of Paris, it’s clear there is considerable distance between rhetoric and reality.