Thursday 8 December 2016

'We need to grow our economy while cutting emissions - that's some ask...'

How do you tackle climate change when half the Irish population doesn't care? Our Environment Editor reports from Paris

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

'How do you mitigate against further change, while still allowing economies to grow?'
'How do you mitigate against further change, while still allowing economies to grow?'

One storm doesn't mean our climate has irrecoverably changed, but the events of the past week certainly paint an apocalyptic picture of a future ravaged by extreme weather events.

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Storm Desmond has caused utter devastation across large parts of the country, with householders, businesses and ultimately the Government facing a massive clean-up bill. And the science tells us we should get used to more of the same - extreme winter-weather events, coupled with summer droughts - which will become more frequent as climate change takes hold.

It highlights the great dilemma facing every nation across the globe - Governments get elected by promising to grow the economy, but that growth comes at an environmental cost.

The Coalition is committed to reducing emissions over time and the weather events of the past week are yet another example of why we need to.

However, half the population remain unconvinced that climate change is a serious issue requiring urgent attention. Could Storm Desmond be the catalyst to change the minds of that 50pc and make them begin to sit up and take notice?

We are not alone in displaying an unwillingness to address climate change, believing it's a problem for future generations.

The latest Eurobarometer survey shows a slight drop in the number of people across the EU who believe it is the single most serious problem facing humanity. Just one in four believes they have personal responsibility for tackling it. That's borne out in the comments made by almost 150 heads of state gathered in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21).

They all spoke about the need for action and the moral imperative to protect the planet for future generations.

But behind the rhetoric lay cold, hard electoral politics, exemplified by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who told the UN climate summit that while all countries had to play their part, Ireland would not jeopardise its economic recovery and tackle agriculture emissions in the near future.

He was clearly courting the votes of 140,000 farming families in the run-up to next year's General Election, but he wasn't alone in speaking out of both sides of his mouth. The world's biggest emitter, China - which this week raised warnings about air pollution to their highest level - is seen as likely to support a weak deal, despite making all the right noises during the plenary.

India has genuine concerns about its economic growth being curtailed, and while the US is committed to an ambitious deal, it's worth noting that Barack Obama is on his way out of office.

Back in 2009, at COP15 in Copenhagen, when he was less than a year in the White House, Obama's administration was widely seen as scuppering an ambitious agreement due in part to domestic opposition. There's still the very real prospect of Congress refusing to ratify any deal. But the inaction to date flies in the face of science. Climate change is already happening, despite what sceptics would have us believe. Even oil-rich country Saudi Arabia accepts this.

Average temperatures in Ireland and across the globe are up almost 1° C this century. Last winter was the stormiest on record. Some of the highest global temperatures on record have been seen in the last decade, with 2015 looking like being the hottest ever.

We are experiencing more frequent flooding, and it's going to get worse. Research from the University of Oxford also suggests that greenhouse gas emissions released to date have increased the likelihood of winter storms by as much as 25pc.

It's no longer a question of 'if' but 'when' the worst effects become a feature of our weather. And therein lies the problem. How do you mitigate against further change, while allowing economies to grow?

The costs of tackling warming are put at less than 1pc of global GDP, an enormous amount but not that much in the grander scheme of things.

The costs of inaction will be far higher, as nations spend billions installing flood defences and replacing damaged infrastructure, dealing with food poverty and coping with climate refugees forced to flee their homes.

But there are numerous benefits from making the right decisions. For example, if we invest in public transport and reduce the use of cars, there is less congestion. This cuts journey times, helps economic growth and gives citizens extra time in their daily lives.

Fewer cars on the road mean less fossil fuels are burnt, improving air quality and public health. Less traffic means less wear and tear and lower road-maintenance costs, and money for other public services.

We need to focus on what we're good at, and look at where we could improve. We're good at producing food sustainably, but we don't debate the fact that 30,000 farms have an output of less than €4,000 a year - could these farmers, many part-time, be encouraged to move away from beef and dairy to forestry or biomass, for example?

Our focus on renewables is helping reduce emissions, but many communities are opposed. What policies can be enacted to encourage take up? A stake in projects? Limiting a wind farm's lifespan to 20 years? Or should we continue to send money to oil and gas-rich nations, many with dubious records on human rights?

We have made positive strides towards energy efficiency, and our domestic retro-fitting programme has cut heating bills and created jobs.

But we could be doing more, particularly on public buildings, which would give the Government more money for public services.

We must also ask if we really need to change the car, or upgrade the television, when the old one works perfectly well? We throw away as much as 30pc of the food we buy - not only a waste of money but a waste of the water, fertilisers and feed required to produce that food.

Growing the economy and reducing emissions appear to be mutually exclusive goals, in the short to medium-term at least.

But the trick is to achieve growth with the least environmental impact.

No one is suggesting that growth be curbed or farmers forced off the land.

What is being suggested is a bit of wit and ambition to help reduce risk, otherwise Ireland faces being left behind as the world moves to a low-carbon future.

An interesting study was published during COP21, which asked the UK public how much they were willing to pay to fight climate change.

The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Policy, revealed not very much, about £27 a year, which researchers said amounted to no more than the cost of a year's stamps. Among the reasons? "A belief that climate change is caused by nature allows some people to absolve themselves of responsibility toward those who will be negatively impacted by climate change," they wrote.

It is nature that is the cause of problems for so many families this weekend. That in itself should give pause for thought and reflection on what is happening to our planet and our seeming unwillingness to do anything about it.

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