Wednesday 22 May 2019

Who'll stop the rain if we don't face up to gathering storm on climate change targets?

Gerard Gallagher in his flood and sewage-damaged home in Burnfoot, Donegal as three counties in the north-west were hit by floods. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Gerard Gallagher in his flood and sewage-damaged home in Burnfoot, Donegal as three counties in the north-west were hit by floods. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

The rain storm that caused extensive damage to roads, bridges, homes and businesses across three counties in the north-west last week caught everybody by surprise. Nobody expected a torrent of rain and destruction that unfolded in just a few hours, not least those whose houses were flooded.

It must have sent a shudder down the spines of those in lowland flood plains in counties further south as they think about how much rain we may get this winter. Picking up the pieces is a dirty, painstaking and expensive business.

Politicians were not slow to make the trip north to inspect the damage. Promises were made. Photos were taken. We will have to wait and see whether the Government makes good on those financial commitments.

But there are bigger issues at play here. As neighbours of mine here in Donegal, who were affected by the floods, debate whether its likes will ever be seen again, climatologists will argue that climate change is a contributing factor to a weather event like that of last Tuesday.

The freakish storm exposed how vulnerable our infrastructure is to serious weather events, whether they are regular and expected or not. The damage wreaked by hurricane Harvey in Texas this week is expected to cost between $10bn and $20bn to put right.

Well that's America, you might say. That sort of thing happens all the time. But estimations put together by the Irish Environmental Protection Agency of the potential cost of major weather events in Ireland are pretty frightening.

It concluded that a weather event leading to a three metre rise in sea water levels here would do about €1bn worth of damage.

Insurers will not pay for all of that. In fact, insurance companies seem to be more attune to the changing weather patterns and their potential cost than government agencies are - given that they are trying to pare back the number of properties they will even insure for flooding.

Ireland's policy response is twofold. We have to spend a lot of money on flood defences and improving infrastructure in preparation for more frequent adverse weather events. And we have to do our bit on an EU and world stage regarding tackling climate change by meeting our obligations on reducing emissions.

On the infrastructure issue, there is a strong sense that we are underestimating the scale of the problem and the costs involved. The OPW estimated that a tidal flood barrier for Cork City would cost at least €450m. This estimate followed claims by a local campaign group that a barrier could be built for €135m, which would remove the need for flood defences in the city centre, which would reduce access to the river.

Throughout the debate there is always a clash between commercial and wider public interests. Commercial interests also represent part of the public interest because they involve creating jobs and employment. Yet throughout the environmental world, the economic need to maximise employment slams right into the important need to protect people and property.

The OPW has been increasing spending on flood defences and has plans for the next five years. Looking at the vulnerabilities of roads, coastal towns, bridges as well as private property, the actual cost could be tens of billions.

Commercial and economic interests are at the centre of the debate about climate change. Reducing carbon emissions will cost money. The question is who should pay that bill. Greater compliance costs businesses which then have to pass it on to customers. A greener motor fleet in Ireland might not be as efficient, thereby undermining our competitiveness.

Introducing new rules about electric cars, for example, before the technology and infrastructure are properly in place, could be economically very costly. Ireland's approach has tended towards signing up for targets, trying a little but not a lot to reach them, and then negotiate more time with the EU on what the next round of emissions targets should be.

It's a kind of political brinkmanship that has half worked up to now on one level but clearly hasn't delivered for the environment.

Many business people already feel heavily burdened by the cost of being green and the idea that it could cost more scares them.

Just last month the Climate Change Advisory Council said there was no framework to prioritise policies and an "absence of decisions" in the National Mitigation Plan launched by the government in July.

Ireland is likely to miss its 2020 targets to reduce emissions by a substantial margin. This in turn will have implications for our 2030 obligations. According to John Fitzgerald, chair of the advisory council, "things are going in the wrong direction".

In now looks as if Ireland will buy its way out of meeting its 2020 commitments and then see what it can do in negotiations in Brussels for 2030.

Securing concessions emissions and renewables targets might seem like a political win. It might buy us more time. But ultimately, we have to ask ourselves some serious questions about what we want.

One argument goes that Ireland is a tiny country and as long as China and the US are polluting away, what good can we really do to save the planet?

The fact that US President Donald Trump said he was pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement might take some of the urgency out of the climate debate at home.

The reality is that we will end up paying anyway. We have signed up to environmental targets with the EU and we can kick for touch with carbon credit offsets or planting a few more trees, but we will end up paying anyway. One third of our emissions come from the agriculture sector. We have adopted a plan to increase the country's milk production by 50pc by 2020. There are now over 300,000 more cows in Ireland than in 2010. Their emissions are a major factor in our failure to meet our targets.

Our plan is to keep going and increase those numbers. This is a very difficult issue to crack. Agriculture minister Michael Creed has said our dairy industry is the most carbon-efficient in the world, and he may be right about that. So we cannot take any more carbon out of the process. It boils down to the number of cows.

The entire food industry seems to be hinging its future hopes on further concessions being negotiated in Brussels that will allow us to keep going. That might be a plan, but it isn't really a strategy.

NUIM climatologist Professor John Sweeney believes the some EU countries are really running out of patience with Ireland on this issue.

He believes we should move away from the volume production strategy in our food sector and opt for quality and higher value. It is a valid argument but it is also something that would be incredibly difficult to achieve.

We are opting for a middle road of being a producer of high-quality, high-volume food.

Is that compatible with environmental targets we have signed up for with Europe? Nobody is trying to answer that question. The industry is pinning its hopes on further derogations, offsets and diplomatic deals in Brussels.

We may even get further concessions for the food sector as part of the Brexit negotiations and no doubt it will be on the table in talks, given the threat Brexit brings to the wider sector.

Ireland is competing in economic terms in every sector. Companies are competing against firms in other countries for global customers. We are also competing for jobs and investment.

There is always a fear that doing the "right thing" at a cost will disadvantage you because others don't move as quickly.

But when it comes to climate change, we are one of only two EU countries that will not be compliant on greenhouse gas emissions targets.

We are quite literally plugging holes when it comes to climate change. And that rain keeps on coming.

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