Monday 17 June 2019

We're sitting before a turf fire with the floodlights on

Ireland is 'completely off course' in achieving emissions targets - we need policies put in place, writes David Robbins

Stock image
Stock image

David Robbins

And it was all going so well. The Government must have thought it had this climate change thing licked. There was the announcement last Monday of Cabinet agreement on renewable energy incentives, the decision to divest from fossil fuels and the setting up of a new Oireachtas committee on climate change.

There was even a new podcast featuring Mary Robinson and comedian Maeve Higgins on how women were leading the fight against climate change, and Minister for Climate Change Denis Naughten gave a rousing speech on Ireland's commitment to the UN's sustainability goals.

And just a few weeks before that, there was the launch of the Ireland 2040 National Development Plan, in which €22bn in climate investment was promised. After the Taoiseach accepted Ireland was perceived as a laggard on climate during a speech to the EU in January, things had turned around. Hardly a day went by without some new climate initiative.

Then came the reality check: the 2018 annual review of the Climate Change Advisory Council, published last Wednesday. The language of the review was unusually blunt. Ireland is "completely off course" in terms of achieving the emissions reduction targets we have signed up to.

Ireland has binding targets to meet by 2020, and even more stringent targets are looming in 2030. There is also a national transition objective set for 2050. The reason we will miss these targets? Quite simply, there are no policies in place to help us achieve them.

Let's back up a bit here. There is lots of research to show climate change is one of those subjects that people feel they should know about, but are not really sure. Studies have found they don't talk about it for fear they would say the wrong thing or show their ignorance.

So a quick recap is helpful. Ireland, as part of the EU, has committed to reducing its emissions of the gases that cause climate change by 20pc by 2020. The benchmark chosen was 2005 - so our emissions of CO2, methane and other harmful gases must by one-fifth lower than they were 13 years ago.

These greenhouse gases come from burning oil and gas, and from the farming of ruminant animals. Ireland's emissions profile is unusual: agriculture (roughly 30pc), transport (about 20pc) and domestic heating (about 10pc) are the biggest culprits. Only New Zealand (49pc) has a bigger contribution from agriculture.

Ireland is also unusual in that some of the emissions caused by burning fossil fuels for electricity generation come from peat, which is more harmful to the atmosphere than coal, oil or gas. And instead of falling, our emissions are rising, in all sectors. Thanks to strong economic growth, transport is booming and the energy demand from industry and from the domestic sector is high.

And thanks to the Government's Food Wise 2025 strategy, agriculture is also expanding, bringing more animals and more emissions. It's a challenging set of circumstances, but the present emissions scenario shows clearly that Ireland has utterly failed to break the link between economic growth and emissions from fossil fuels.

But what about all that good news on climate change? The decision to end state investment in fossil fuel shares and assets is welcome, and represents a considerable achievement for those who lobbied for it. But if fossil fuels account for just over €300m of Ireland's investments, divestment won't send the Exxon Mobil share price into a death spiral.

The National Development Plan is... well, just a plan. It joins the National Mitigation Plan, the Energy White Paper, and the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act in a growing pile of official documents which spell out the extent of the problem without providing a policy framework or targets for dealing with it.

Most of these documents show what we need to do: make trucks, buses and cars electric, deep retro-fit more than a million houses, increase the capability of renewable energy and transition away from animal husbandry into forestry, crops or other forms of agriculture. And tax carbon, a basic and widely accepted first step. The Climate Change Advisory Council recommends €80 per tonne for starters.

In the meantime, paying householders who generate surplus electricity from solar panels or domestic windmills and sticking in a few more electric car charge points would help.

The council - not a radical body by any means - called for a policy "map" to show how Ireland could transition to a low-carbon society. There is plenty of evidence to show that such a transition is a great opportunity for positive change.

Instead, our Government spends its political capital in Europe in trying to get our targets lowered and in reducing the ambition of the Union's climate change agenda. Working with Poland, we have lobbied against moves by France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Portugal and Luxembourg to accelerate climate action.

As the fires blaze from Sweden to Lapland to Greece, and the global temperature increases, Ireland is doing the equivalent of sitting before a turf fire with the floodlights on.

Dr David Robbins is an assistant professor at DCU, where he teaches on the MSc in Climate Change: Policy, Media & Society

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