Wednesday 22 May 2019

Professor John Sweeney: We ignore global warming at our peril, and at huge cost to economy

Shingle banks in Clew Bay, Co Mayo, host rare flowers, but are under increasing pressure through the removal of gravel, the building of sea defences, recreational pursuits and rising sea levels. NEIL LOCKHART
Shingle banks in Clew Bay, Co Mayo, host rare flowers, but are under increasing pressure through the removal of gravel, the building of sea defences, recreational pursuits and rising sea levels. NEIL LOCKHART

Professor John Sweeney

In Ireland, we have an unfortunate tendency to downplay the risks associated with climate change. As a small nation with a temperate climate, we feel we won't be directly affected.

We don't have deserts or rain forests; we don't get tidal waves or typhoons; and the concepts of famine and drought are considered relics from a distant past. But to think Ireland is immune to climate change is dangerous.

Unless we take immediate steps, it won't just be the environment that suffers – there will be disastrous implications for our economy and quality of life.

The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) yesterday published the first part of the most authoritative and scrutinised report on climate change ever written. It was prepared by more than 800 experts from all over the world, and shows scientists are now as positive that climate change is real and caused by humans as they are that smoking causes cancer.

In the 250 years since the Industrial Revolution, mankind has emitted half-a-trillion tonnes of carbon by burning fossil fuels, a process that has caused atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to rise by 40pc. We are on track to release another half-a-trillion tonnes in the next few decades, which would result in a major jump in global temperatures.

So what does this mean for Ireland? If global temperatures rise by 2C to 3C (a modest projection), the result will be a loss of up to 3pc in global GDP. At current prices, this would equate to a loss – in Ireland – of approximately €4.8bn a year. There are ways in which climate change would cost the economy.

We engage in open, export-led economics, so we're vulnerable to global factors. If climate change is allowed to continue and cause major disruption to world trade, there will be knock-on impacts here.

Some of our most important economic sectors such as agriculture and food production would be seriously affected by temperature rises. If climate change goes unchecked, Irish summers will be hotter and drier, winters will be warmer and wetter and a risk of more frequent widespread flooding will occur.

Let's consider geographic and demographic factors: Ireland has 4,577km of coast, and more than half the population lives within 15km of the sea. Around 20pc of the coast is at risk of erosion, with sea-level rise already having a significant impact on the soft boulder clay coasts of the east.

Counties Dublin, Down, Louth, Wexford and Wicklow are particularly at risk, but the west and south are also affected, with low-lying bays and estuaries such as Cork Harbour, Clew Bay and especially the Shannon Estuary displaying increased exposure to sea-level rise.

The costs of doing something about climate change are far less than the costs involved in letting it continue unchecked. Governments worldwide must urgently implement plans to reduce emissions, encourage clean energy and discourage the use of fossil fuels.

RECENTLY, the Government published the heads of a new Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill. In advancing this legislation, it will be important to ensure there is an effective strategy for emission reductions and provision for independent oversight and monitoring of progress.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, adaptation costs in Ireland would be in the region of €80m to €800m a year, compared with the potential loss of €4.8bn if we fail to act.

We can position ourselves to make sure we're not a big loser. We should incentivise private investment in a low-carbon economy and developing hi-tech alternatives to fossil fuels.

Ireland has a chance now to become a leader in a new, low-carbon industrial revolution.

John Sweeney is Ireland's leading expert on climate science, and a Professor of Geography at NUI Maynooth.

Irish Independent

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