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Column: We ignore the environment at our peril

In this century, climate change and the quality of our environment will be the central issue demanding a global response, writes Tom Healy.

Tom Healy

ENVIRONMENTAL CHANGE HAS attracted growing concern over recent decades. The recession in most European states has diverted attention, temporarily, to problems of debt, low-growth and under-utilisation of resources such as labour. Yet, the natural environment plays a huge role in shaping the lives and choices of humanity. It is beyond doubt that changes in the environment have been the result of human behaviour and choice. In this century, climate change and the quality of our environment will be the central problem demanding a global response.

The problem of climate change, energy supply and energy cost continue to pose a huge challenge to societies across the globe. For the Republic of Ireland the challenge is twofold:

  • Anticipating and preparing for changes in energy supply and cost in the future including unforeseen or sudden disruptions to supply or cost of imported energy; and
  • Modifying human behaviour and public policy as part of a global and local ethic to, literally, save the planet and leave a better world for future generations.

A long-term, complex project

Changes in attitude, behaviour and public policy is a long-term and complex project. However, because it is long-term and complex does not argue for postponing the task. It remains vital and urgent. Climate change and the associated issues raised constitute, it is argued, the greatest single challenge for societies in the 21st Century. This needs to be reflected in political economy and in public policy across the globe. Waiting for international agreement is not an option. An overriding priority must be to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions over the coming 15 years. New targets need to be set for the period to 2030 and policy monitored and evaluated regularly.

The weight of scientific evidence strongly indicates that a long-term and profound shift has occurred in global temperatures and this is likely to be related, among other possible factors, to an acceleration in the burning of fossil fuels since the onset of the industrial revolution. It is estimated that, today, 30% of CO2 gases in the atmosphere is related to human behaviour. The decade ending 2010 was the hottest on record.

The prospects for international agreement and corresponding action to significantly limit and reduce CO2 emissions within the next ten years appear to be negligible – this in spite of the growing evidence that such emissions will lead to an irreversible and disastrous rise in temperatures with consequences for global balance and societies near and far. There is a moral imperative on all countries to cooperate in this matter as well as given a lead through example in addressing the underlying causes – which are political and moral as much as technological and financial in nature. While a totally decarbonised economy may not be feasible, more rapid progress in the right direction is needed and much greater priority needs to be accorded to this goal.

Progress has been comparatively slow

The recession-related modest fall in total net greenhouse gas emissions in the Republic of Ireland from a peak of 125 of 1990 levels in 2005 to a level of 106 in 2011 is welcome. This leaves the Republic marginally below the 2012 Kyoto target of 113. However, further progress is needed especially as some of this fall was clearly related to the sudden disruption in economic activity in 2008.

Progress, in the case of the Republic of Ireland, has been very slow compared to the EU28 average which was 83% of 1990 levels in 2011. The UK level was 75% in 2011. Levels of energy intensity as measured by gross inland consumption of energy divided by GDP (at constant 2000 prices) fell in the years up to 2007 but have increased a little since then. On the positive side levels are lowest among all EU Member States. Levels of acid rain precursor emissions, here, has been trending downwards since 2000 to reach a level just slightly above the Gothenburg Protocol target emissions level in 2010.

Gradual progress has been made in a number of areas of environmental policy as noted by the Central Statistics Office (2012): ‘The percentage of waste recovered in Ireland rose to 38% in 2010, from just under a quarter in 2003, and 53% of waste was landfilled.’ While the rate of waste recovery is not far from the EU average there is scope for significant further improvement given rates in excess of 50% in some EU States in 2010.

Eurostat measures energy dependency as net energy imports divided by the sum of gross energy consumption. The figure for the Republic of Ireland was 89% in 2011 compared to 54%  on average for the EU27. Only the islands of Cyprus and Malta together with the Duchy of Luxembourg had higher rates than that of the Republic of Ireland. Given the exceptionally high dependence by the Republic of Ireland on fossil fuel imports it is clear that changes need to happen to patterns of consumption, production and energy use and importation.

Investment in renewable energy is not a panacea

A sudden shock to the global economy arising from a hike in energy costs could have a disproportionate and destabilising effect on Irish economic conditions. While there is the possibility that energy supplies may not necessarily be as constrained as feared some years ago – due to the possible development of new sources through oil and gas finds off the Irish coast or through the development of new technologies and sources in other countries – the high dependence on imports of oil and gas is not desirable.

While the development of nuclear power or shale extraction (fracking) have been cited by some as necessary alternative sources of energy in Ireland the case for this has not been convincingly established given the environmental and other risks associated with such developments. Investment in renewable sources of energy is justifiable from the standpoint of diversifying energy sources in a way that reduces our exposure to external shocks as well as ensuring a more ecologically friendly form of energy consumption.

The costs of investment in renewable energy are considerable and, depending on the form used, may have undesirable impacts for some communities (such as, for example, the establishment of inland wind turbines). However, some forms of alternative renewable energy production still in their infancy and future technological change may open up safer, quicker, more stable and lower cost options. Investment in renewable energy is, therefore, an important component of a medium-term strategy and not a panacea.

Looking to the future

A number of urgent policy initiatives that are within the grasp of Irish and European policy-makers are needed:

  • Investment in renewable sources of energy to reduce fossil fuel dependency gradually over time;
  • Shift of taxes towards ‘bads’ carbon-based production and consumption with a built-in basic income provision for all members of society;
  • Reduce energy consumption through better insulation of buildings and provision of public transport alternatives to car-based travel.
  • Imposition of much stricter emissions standards on production, domestic appliances and cars.

Tom Healy is Director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI). Tom has previously worked in the Economic and Social Research Institute, the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the National Economic and Social Forum and the Department of Education and Skills. He holds a PhD (economics and sociology) from UCD. His research interests have included the impact of education and social capital on well-being.

This article originally appeared on the NERI website.

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Tom Healy

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