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Ireland doesn't really do climate change - so what will Paris deal mean for us?

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Deep breath: Air pollution kills 1,200 Irish people every year

Deep breath: Air pollution kills 1,200 Irish people every year

Deep breath: Air pollution kills 1,200 Irish people every year

Last week, Ireland formally ratified the Paris Agreement on climate change. The treaty, already ratified by 103 countries, aims to reduce global greenhouse emissions and to avoid dangerous temperature increases.

The challenge is great and amplified by the election of Donald Trump, who dismisses climate change as a hoax and has pledged to withdraw the US from the historic deal.

Unfortunately, Ireland also has a poor record when it comes to responding to climate change. As Irish citizens we have one of the largest carbon footprints, per person, in Europe. As tax payers, we are paying subsidies of over €100m this year to peat-fired power stations, which generate over a million tonnes of harmful emissions. The State has spent over €2bn in the last 10 years assisting people to pay their fuel bills, while at the same time, we have the highest reliance on oil for residential heating in Europe - oil imported at a cost of billions each year.

It is difficult to energise people and politicians on the issue of climate change. Climate activists often focus on the extreme consequences in an attempt to mobilise action. However pictures of melting ice sheets often serve only to disempower and distance many of us from the issue. On the other hand, climate sceptics talk about crippling economic costs and scientific uncertainty.

Both these narratives lend themselves to political and social inertia - yet give us little insight into why we need to act at all.

In University College Cork we are doing the sums on climate change. Our analysis with the ESRI on the development of a low carbon energy roadmap for Ireland has demonstrated that Ireland can achieve an 80pc reduction in energy-related emissions by 2050, for a cost that represents approximately 1pc of GDP. While this figure ignores some of the possible benefits of recycling revenue generation back into the economy, it also views the challenge of climate change through the narrow lens of macro-economics. The health and well-being of Irish society are inextricably linked to the quality of our environment and many of these benefits are overlooked when we talk only of an economic response to climate change.

Action on climate change can have benefits throughout society. Just last week the Environmental Protection Agency reported that air pollution causes the premature deaths of at least 1,200 Irish citizens a year. Using cleaner fuels in transport and heating can help reduce this.

The poor quality of our housing stock adds to the hardship of fuel poverty which impacts about 20pc of Irish households. Making homes cosier and draught-resistant reduces emissions, creates local employment and also benefits the health system.

Ireland also has an ageing population and it is likely that the impact of these illnesses on our already overburdened health system will increase. Delivering dignified living conditions is important for society and also contributes to the necessary greenhouse gas emission reductions.

Rural Ireland has a big role to play. Agriculture is responsible for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland and a plan of action is needed for rural communities struggling to maintain employment, young people and services. The majority of our beef farming is unprofitable with part-time farms heavily dependent on subsidies. Ireland's active ecosystem offers unique opportunities for businesses or cooperatives producing indigenous energy fuels such as renewable gas from waste or grass and wood from forestry; indigenous fuels that are badly required for one of the most import-dependant countries in the world. A hectare of grassland can produce renewable gas to heat 10 homes thus reducing emissions and helping to diversify rural employment.

Action on climate change is challenging. We cannot actually see the greenhouse gases - but we can envision the positive consequences of climate action. The need to address energy, poverty, air pollution, water quality, energy security, and sustainable employment resonates with us all and action on these issues has the side effect of also addressing the broader challenge of climate change. These are matters worth striving towards, services worth paying for.

Our conversations on climate change have to move past the jaded rhetoric of emissions reduction to messages that are more meaningful, relevant and local. We need a narrative worth fighting for.

Paul Deane is a research fellow at the Environmental Research Institute in UCC

Sunday Independent