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Saturday 17 March 2018

Nature set to fulfil 'doomsday prophecies' on climate change

A woman shelters from the sun in St Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, as a heatwave hits Europe. Photo: Reuters
A woman shelters from the sun in St Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy, as a heatwave hits Europe. Photo: Reuters
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

We all know our weather patterns are changing. But what the study published in 'The Lancet Planetary Health' suggests is that unless governments step up to the plate and begin unshackling economies from fossil fuels and fast, the human toll will be very real as nature fulfils the doomsday prophecies that science has long predicted.

It reports that two out of every three people living in Europe will be affected by weather-related disasters by the end of the century unless drastic action is taken to tackle climate change.

This could result in the largely avoidable deaths of as many as 152,000 people a year, up from 3,000 at present, from heatstroke, and as a result of wildfires, drought, flooding and storms. And Ireland is particularly vulnerable due to an increase in the numbers living in our coastal areas, who will be at risk from rising sea levels and severe winter storms.

We know the vast bulk of the State's economic output is generated from Dublin and surrounding counties, along with Cork - both of which are coastal cities. In the absence of policies to encourage people to settle in other communities, more will flock to these urban areas, putting more potentially at risk.

Across Europe, substantial increases in deaths from coastal flooding are forecast from six deaths a year at the start of the century to 233 a year by 2100.

"The mean proportion of people living in coastal flood-prone areas in Europe is expected to increase by 14pc, with the most notable increases in Slovenia (205pc), Ireland (192pc), Norway (184pc), Portugal (161pc), and the UK (148pc)," the study says.

The Environmental Protection Agency has suggested by mid-century average annual temperatures in Ireland will increase by between 1C and 1.6C, heavy rainfall events will increase in winter and autumn and while the number of storms will reduce, they will increase in intensity with a higher risk of damage. It follows a 0.8C temperature rise over the last century, and higher annual rainfall levels.

But it's not just Europe that will be affected. Sub-Saharan Africa and large parts of Asia are already suffering. Rising sea levels are impacting low-lying countries including Pacific islands and Honduras. A separate study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests extreme heatwaves will kill even healthy people across the Indian subcontinent. The new analysis assesses the impact of climate change on the combination of heat and humidity, measured as a "wet bulb" temperature. Once it hits 35C, the human body cannot cool itself by sweating and even healthy people sitting in the shade will die within six hours.

It's clear that all countries must play their part. While the Government has published a National Mitigation Plan outlining some of the measures needed to move to a low-carbon future, there is widespread discontent about the pace of change.

The number of electric cars on the road is barely above 2,100, from a national fleet of more than two million. The public transport offering isn't sufficient in many areas, and there is no incentive or penalties to encourage motorists to switch where services are available.

There remains much opposition to renewable energy projects including windfarms. We burn coal and peat in our power plants. While we have banned fracking, we appear to welcome fracked natural gas being shipped to the Port of Cork for use in the national grid, as proposed by a US firm this week.

Our commercial building regulations around energy efficiency require updating. We appear to refuse to countenance high-density development in our cities, exacerbating urban sprawl and the need for the private car. And while many argue the change will take a generation or more, there's a valid argument that not enough is being done and that the crisis of climate change is merely subject to lip service.

The 'Lancet' study was based on the assumption of there being no reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and no improvements to policies helping to reduce the impact of extreme weather events, such as medical technology, air conditioning and insulation in houses. It is apocalyptic, and should act as a wake-up call.

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And while Ireland is lagging behind in taking action, it is not alone. Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by three research organisations, says plans by major emitters including Australia, Canada, Russia, the US and others are inadequate to hold average temperature rises to 2C by the end of the century, whatever about the pursuit of holding them to 1.5C, as agreed in the Paris climate deal. This will have implications, not just in Europe but across the planet.

The 'Lancet' study suggests heatwaves will be the most lethal weather-related disaster across Europe, and could cause 99pc of all future weather-related deaths, increasing from 2,700 deaths a year between 1981-2010 to 151,500 annually in 2071-2100.

As if we needed a reminder, this weekend temperatures above 40C are forecast in parts of Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Greece. We can expect more of the same under current trajectories.

"Climate change is one of the biggest global threats to human health of the 21st century, and its peril to society will be increasingly connected to weather-driven hazards," says lead author Dr Giovanni Forzieri, from the European Commission joint research centre in Italy.

"Unless global warming is curbed as a matter of urgency and appropriate measures are taken, about 350 million Europeans could be exposed to harmful climate extremes on an annual basis by the end of the century."

There are some signs of change here, with a conversation actually starting on what needs to done. Next month, the Citizens Assembly will begin discussing how Ireland can become a leader in tackling climate change. Submissions are invited until August 11.

The National Dialogue on Climate Action is also under way, which will be tasked with undertaking a national conversation on what the challenges are, what needs to be done, and how vulnerable communities can be helped to make the transition.

There is opportunity. Ireland could be a test bed for electric, hydrogen or other low-emissions motoring and heating technologies. Upgrading our electricity network to a smart grid as proposed by the Commission for Energy Regulation will help improve energy efficiency and drive down bills. There are jobs, and Ireland could become a world leader with a bit of vision and ambition. The alternative is clear, and the human cost will be profound.

Irish Independent

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