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'Failing to act would have grave consequences': Proposed carbon budget charts new climate path

The carbon budget would see Ireland’s emissions fall by 95 million tonnes between 2021-2025 and 2026-2030.

IRELAND’S EMISSIONS SHOULD fall by 95 million tonnes between 2021-2025 and 2026-2030, the newly proposed carbon budget outlines.

The Climate Change Advisory Council has sent its proposed carbon budget to Minister Eamon Ryan today after long deliberations over its recommendations on how Ireland should chart its path to reducing emissions.

For the first time, the Irish government is due to implement three carbon budgets, each covering five years, that set out limits on emissions from specific sectors.

The budget is trying to create a map for Ireland to follow to meet the government’s target of cutting emissions in more than half by 2030 – a stepping stone on the way to its second key target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

The first proposed carbon budget, which will last until 2025, allows for a total of 295 million tonnes (Mt) of CO2 emissions between now and then.

Between 2026 and 2030, the limit is 200 Mt, and the provisional carbon budget for 2031 to 2035 allocates 151 Mt.

“The proposed carbon budgets will require transformational changes for society and the economy which are necessary; failing to act on climate change would have grave consequences,” the report stated.

Chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council Marie Donnelly said that the budget will impact society and the economy but that “failing to act on the climate crisis would have even greater, more unpredictable, consequences”.

Donnelly said that the budget is “based on the best available science and defines an appropriate and necessary path to addressing the climate challenge”.

“Many of the changes required will only have a real impact on emissions in the second period,” she said.

We have an opportunity to act on climate change in a planned and organised way. Now is the time to put policies and supports in place that will help those people, communities and businesses that will be impacted by the changes we need to make to how we live, work and travel.

“The carbon budgets alone are not the solution. The carbon budgets provide a framework, but it will ultimately fall to each sector of our economy to create their own pathways and solutions to reduce their emissions within that framework.”

EU member states are bound to a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990.

The report outlines that the carbon budgets proposed are “broadly consistent” with targets proposed by the EU for Ireland, based on analysis by UCC Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir.

It also said that the proposed carbon budgets are broadly consistent with Ireland’s requirements as a signee of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.

It notes that carbon dioxide removal technology, which would sequester or “draw down” CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, could contribute to reducing net emissions, but that many such technologies have not been demonstrated at scale and “careful consideration” is required before assuming they will be feasible. 

In 2018, Ireland emitted 68.3 Mt CO2eq of greenhouse gases, based on values published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s fifth assessment report. 

Under the Climate Act, the carbon budget proposed by the council needed to provide for a 51% reduction in emissions by 2030, which means the first two budgets must allow for – at most – 33.5 Mt CO2eq in 2030.

It applies to emissions from energy, land use, agriculture and industrial activities, but not from international aviation or shipping.

In a technical report outlining the basis of the carbon budgets, the Council drew on modelling from University College Cork, the University of Limerick and Teagasc and set out several scenarios for emission reductions.

The modelling showed that “significant changes in society and the economy” would be necessary to meet the carbon budgets, the report said.

Energy

In the energy sector, the modelling suggested that the electrification of cars and vans should be maximised and charging infrastructure should be expanded.

The report said a reduction in transport demand along with a switch away from private cars towards public transport, walking and cycling could reduce the costs of the transition, as well as benefits for health and traffic.

Additionally, it suggests a “complete removal of coal and peat for residential heating and up to 600,000 retrofits between 2020 and 2030”.

The requirement for electrification in transport and heat leads to a significant increase in electricity generation and installed capacity in all scenarios.

Scenarios set out in the report for emissions and reduction measures would see around 7GW of onshore wind capacity installed in 2030, while natural gas would still be a significant source of energy.

To meet the target of cutting emissions in half, “abundant clean energy” will be crucial and nearly every sector relies on an increasing supply of it to decarbonise, the report said.

Agriculture

The report outlines that lowering emissions in agriculture can be achieved when farmers adopt particular actions.

Some of those actions relate to the genetics of dairy cows, grazing, improving the efficiency of nitrogen use, and including clover in forage.

Altered fertilizer formulation and improved animal health can also contribute to reducing emissions.

The report warns that despite a broad range of actions that can be taken, the ability to mitigate methane emissions is likely to be particularly challenging over the next decade and that the sector will require support from the government and industry.

“Given that 85% of Ireland’s agricultural GHG emissions are associated directly or indirectly with bovine [cattle] agriculture, changes in agricultural emissions over and above those delivered by mitigation measures are driven by changes in bovine agricultural activity levels,” the report said.

“Within the Teagasc FAPRI-Ireland model, progressively larger negative subsidies were introduced so as to ‘engineer’ a reduction in the volume of bovine agricultural activity required to lower agricultural emissions to target levels determined by the carbon budget scenarios,” it said.

“With reductions in beef and dairy activity levels, unless other income streams are developed, agricultural output value and agricultural sector income are also reduced.

“The more ambitious the agricultural GHG emissions reductions scenarios considered, the larger the negative impact on agricultural output value and on agricultural sector income.

The acceleration of technology development leading to additional mitigation possibilities and increasing the rate of technology adoption could help to avoid the need for a reduction in bovine agriculture activity levels.”

Under scenarios where agricultural emissions must fall by 30% or more, suckler cows need to decline from one million in 2018 to around 200,000 by 2030, while a 33% reduction would require dairy cow numbers to move from 1.4 million to 1.2 million.

To achieve a 51% reduction in the sector, dairy cow numbers would need to fall from 1.4 million to 650,000.

Land use

For the land use, land use change and forestry sector, achieving a 51% reduction will mean reversing a current trend that expects its emissions to increase from 4.5 Mt CO2eq in 2019 to 7.1Mt CO2eq in 2030.

Although forests have contributed to removing carbon dioxide, forest land is projected to switch from a net removal to a net source of emissions between now and 2030.

This is because of high afforestation rates in the 1980s and 90s followed by a failure to achieve targeted afforestation rates in recent decades.

The report outlines that emission reductions of 51% in the sector, “while very challenging, are possible”.

It would involve rewetting peatlands, improved management of mineral and organic soils under grasslands, cropland management, and increased afforestation and require “action by Government that effectively encourages the identified land use actions”.

In particular, “significant afforestation” will be necessary to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, and the scale of afforestation required “demands urgent action” in this decade.

“This will contribute important removals to balance residual emissions in achieving the transition to a low carbon economy.”

The economy

Decarbonisation will require a “major increase in investment” which could result in some additional economic activity and employment, the report said.

“Some of the investment may also be recouped in savings in fuel and via economic co-
benefits such as from improved health and air quality.

“However, there will be additional expense which requires redirecting resources that could have been used for investment to reach other goals or to fund household consumption and other current government expenditure.”

Negative impacts on the economy could be mitigated by “appropriate policies and supportive infrastructures”.

The total additional upfront investment cost over the decade would be between €19bn to €50bn, with investment in the transport and residential sectors together making up about €3bn to €18bn depending on the measures taken.

If the energy sector target rises to a 61% cut in emissions, the upfront investment costs would rise by approximately another €32bn over the decade.

At an average of a €5bn cost per annum, upfront investment in measures to reach emission targets would be around 1.3% of Ireland’s GDP or 2.4% of GNI.

The report compares those figures to the impact of the financial crisis on GNI – a fall of 9.7% between 2008 to 2009 – and the impact of Brexit, which was estimated as a reduction of 4.3% in GDP in 2030.

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On jobs, the report expects that employment could be affected in “a number of ways” – creating roles in sectors that provide low carbon solutions but potential losses in high carbon sectors where demand for products or services reduces.

It will be important to identify jobs at risk so that workers and communities can be prepared, for example through upskilling, retraining and redeployment for new employment in a low carbon economy.”

“Analysis by Teagasc of the carbon budget scenarios suggests, that without intervention, potential job losses in the agri-food sector would be between 6,000 and 13,000 in a scenario of 20% emissions cuts to between 21,000 and 45,000 job losses in a scenario of 40% emissions cuts in agricultural emissions.”

Jobs associated with fossil-fuel based technologies are also “particularly vulnerable”.

However, other jobs will be created, the report said, to deliver measures like new energy systems, renewable energy, and home retrofitting.

Households

The report outlines that households will “need to make investments in more sustainable transport options and also to upgrade the energy efficiency and energy technologies in their homes”.

It cautions that some households will be better able to finance the transition than others, and that under the most ambitious scenario for emissions reductions, nearly 800,000 older fossil fuel cars would need to be scrapped to meet aims for electric vehicles, which “would represent a real loss to the affected households as, while the new EVs which they would have to buy would be much less costly to run, this would not offset the loss from the early scrappage of their existing car”.

“While regulation could force early scrapping, unless carefully designed it could end up focussed on generally poorer households with older fossil fuel cars.”

Investment by homeowners in retrofitting will “substantially reduce each affected household’s expenditure on energy through switching to electricity”, but they will “still have a significant bill for electricity for heating”.

The report says that the evidence available “suggests that the targets for retrofit will not be met unless the state pays for the bulk of the costs”.

What happens now?

Now that the Council has proposed the carbon budget, it’s up to the Oireachtas to decide whether to accept it.

Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications Eamon Ryan, who the budget has been sent to, can propose it to the Oireachtas.

If it is adopted, Minister Ryan will then be responsible for allocating specific emission limits on a sector-by-sector basis.

Alongside the carbon budget, his department is expected to soon publish the government’s new Climate Action Plan, which will detail the next steps in measures to try to tackle the climate crisis.

Starting on Sunday, leaders from Ireland and around the world will meet in Glasgow for COP26 – a UN summit where countries will seek to negotiate new climate agreements.

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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