Tuesday 22 May 2018

Invest, innovate and educate to solve challenge posed by climate change

US Secretary of State John Kerry signs the book while holding his granddaughter, Isabelle Dobbs-Higginson, during the signature ceremony for the Paris Agreement at the United Nations General Assembly Hall yesterday in New York. Photo: AFP/Getty
US Secretary of State John Kerry signs the book while holding his granddaughter, Isabelle Dobbs-Higginson, during the signature ceremony for the Paris Agreement at the United Nations General Assembly Hall yesterday in New York. Photo: AFP/Getty

Frank McGovern

The signing of the Paris Agreement by Ireland and 170 other governments brings into sharp focus the fact that there is no time like the present to get serious about addressing climate change. History tells us a lot can happen in a short time, but the next decade is critical for effective actions on global warming.

Our understanding of the Earth's climate, and the role we have in changing it, is a major scientific achievement. It was not a breakthrough made by one scientist, but a culmination of efforts that are central to our fundamental human curiosity about our world and how it works.

In Ireland, monuments like Newgrange reflect this curiosity.

It was built to chart the changing cycles of light and dark, and the seasons. This understanding allowed forecasting of the coming summer and planning for a new year.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 is really an award to the hundreds of scientists who put the scientific jigsaw puzzle of our climate system together.

Many of these scientists came from Ireland.

We can now look back to when Newgrange was built, and beyond that, and chart how and why the Earth's climate changed over centuries and millennia.

Importantly, we can also project what may happen to our climate system in this century and beyond.

The key information is that we are irreversibly changing our climate system. That was the message from science to last December's COP21 meeting in Paris. The detail carefully presented by the IPCC to governments is compelling and stark; warming is unequivocal, the human influence is clear, and the need to take action is urgent if large-scale global impacts are to be avoided.

The response by world leaders was also compelling. They agreed to collectively work to hold average global temperature increases to well below 2°C relative to pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.

They also agreed to enhance adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience to the impacts of climate change that are now inevitable. Importantly, they agreed to make finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate resilience development.

Among the details is agreement to peak global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and reach a balance between emissions and removals, by sinks such as forests, in the second half of the century.

The Paris Agreement effectively takes on board the necessity to decarbonise global energy systems and enhance land management to increase uptake of carbon dioxide.

Scientifically, reaching net zero carbon dioxide emissions is an imperative if we are to stabilise the global climate system.

Ireland's National Policy Statement on climate change and the White Paper on Energy outline a similar pathway.

Currently, just over 90pc of our energy is provided by fossil fuels. This has significant economic and environmental costs - and not just for climate. Human health and the ecosystem are adversely impacted by pollutants produced by burning fossil fuels.

A 90pc dependency on fossil energy means that Ireland is highly locked into carbon-intensive systems in electricity generation, transport and heating.

This reflects a very high level of lock-in to carbon-intensive infrastructure and systems, and brings associated societal and cultural lock-in.

This situation has to be reversed.

Investment and innovation are needed to achieve this and enable decarbonisation. Individuals, communities and organisations need to be enabled to take ownership of this challenge.

Increasing energy efficiency in our workplaces and homes is also essential.

Analysis of the 2014 data on Building Energy Rating (BER) certified homes show that 50pc of houses tested were rated D or lower. This represents both a considerable ongoing cost for these households and an opportunity to improve energy performance.

Signing the Paris Agreement will not protect us from all climate change impacts. Some of the changes will inevitably increase during the coming decades. Others such as sea-level rise may continue well into the next century.

The impacts of weather extremes witnessed over recent years highlight major vulnerabilities across the country.

A first step in adapting to climate change and increasing our resilience is to address and reduce current vulnerability to weather-related extremes. Such adaptive actions will require on-going investment and regulation.

THE recent enactment of climate legislation paves the way for production of national plans to address climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing a framework for adaptation actions.

Independent oversight of these and their implementation will be provided by the newly established Climate Change Advisory Council.

The challenges facing Ireland are both immediate and longer term: Ireland faces challenges in meeting its 2020 EU emissions targets and in charting a transformation pathway to 2050. All sectors have to play their part in achieving Ireland's decarbonisation goal and increasing resilience to the impacts of climate change.

It is in all our interests that the Paris Agreement is signed, ratified and implemented. Otherwise addressing the consequences of climate change would be increasingly costly, difficult and unmanageable.

Adaptation would eventually become futile for high-risk areas.

Investment, innovation, information and education are needed. Examples of such innovation are evident around Ireland, but scaling these up with a new sense of urgency is essential.

The message from science is clear, the response from governments is agreed. Taking the next steps is the shared challenge for today.

Frank McGovern is the head of climate research at the Environmental Protection Agency

Irish Independent

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