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Analysis: The argument that Ireland is too small to take climate action doesn’t hold up

Despite our small size, we have a significant carbon footprint in global rankings

AMID THE POSITIVE moves made during the first week of what is arguably the most important global climate summit to date, a China-sized cloud has hung over COP26 in Glasgow.

Updated country emissions reduction plans and a global pact to reduce methane emissions by 30% this decade look set to edge us closer to the coveted 1.5 degree target.

Yet, a bigger issue took centre stage in much of the early discussions – the absence of Xi Jinping, the leader of China, the world’s largest carbon emitter.

The decision was widely criticised, with US President Joe Biden telling the climate conference that its rival superpower was walking away from its climate responsibility. 

While Xi’s absence is unhelpful, as climate conference veteran and climate policy advisor Tara Shine told RTE’s Prime Time from Glasgow earlier in the week, the Chinese delegation is very much “at the table” and in the negotiations mix at the global summit.

Still, the absence of Xi has opened the floodgates for online commentators to break out the old trope that there is little point in the Irish people pulling up their socks when the giant to our East continues to spew out emissions like there is no tomorrow.

Before deciding that our nation can do little to limit the impacts of the climate breakdown, we need to take account of how we stack up globally. So, do we really need to do more to play our role in the global run of things? The data would say yes. 

JoeBidenCOP US President Joe Biden criticised the absence of China's leader at COP26 Source: Kiara Worth/UNFCCC

Need to pull our weight

First of all, the argument that we are too small of a nation to take action doesn’t hold up particularly well when we have a larger population than more than 100 other countries in the world. If all of these countries took the same attitude that they are too small to take action, then we would be in serious trouble as a global collective.

As climate scientist, and Climate Change Advisory Council member, Dr Cara Augustenborg highlights, a quarter of the world’s emissions come from countries like Ireland, contributing less than 2% each but collectively adding up to emissions levels similar in scale to China and the US.  

While our individual emissions levels do pale in comparison to China – our share is around .1% of global emissions – we are still among the top 75 emitters globally and are performing very poorly compared to our European neighbours. 

In 2019, according to the Central Statistics Office, Ireland ranked seventh worst out of 28 EU member states in terms of its total greenhouse gas emissions. This gets even worse when you look at our emissions levels on a per capita basis. 

Failing low-emitting counterparts

EU data shows that we had the third worst greenhouse gases emissions per capita in Europe in 2019 at just over 12 tonnes of CO2 equivalent - 53% higher than the EU average of 7.9 tonnes.

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On a global scale – taking just CO2 emissions into account – we emitted over 7.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2018, putting us inside the top 30 globally.

We would likely be further up the table if other greenhouse gases were taken into account in this World Bank analysis due to high methane emissions from our agricultural sector.

While not faring as badly as the oil-producing Gulf countries by this metric, stacked up against low-emitting but highly climate vulnerable countries such as Burundi, we clearly have much more work to do to reduce emissions and play our fair share. 

The funding bump in Ireland’s climate finance contribution for developing countries announced by the Taoiseach at COP26 is a welcome addition.

However, we could be doing a much bigger service to countries such as Burundi and Madagascar – a low emitting island nation on the verge of the world’s first climate-induced famine – by pulling our weight in the collective effort to get to net zero by 2050.

As Tara Shine said earlier this week on China, “we need to be careful who we demonise” in the battle to tackle the existential crisis of our lives.

“We all need to do better,” she said. And Ireland is no different. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

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