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'Both challenging and not ambitious enough': Why the carbon budgets are a huge deal for Ireland

Ireland’s first proposed carbon budgets were finalised yesterday.

EXPERTS HAVE SAID it is crucial to remember that fast action is needed on climate change, but larger emission reductions will mostly come later this decade. 

The Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) yesterday agreed on its proposed carbon budgets after lengthy deliberations. It has finalised two five-year budgets to last until 2030 and a provisional third budget for 2031 onwards.

The budgets were presented to Environment Minister Eamon Ryan who said they are a “significant milestone in our efforts to tackle climate change”. 

The first proposed carbon budget, which will last from 2021 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.

Sector-by-sector breakdowns for how this will be achieved have yet to be finalised. 

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

They have been mostly welcomed as a crucial step in Ireland’s struggle to reduce its emissions. 

Dr Diarmuid Torney, associate professor at the school of law and government in Dublin City University, said the targets set out in the carbon budgets can be seen as both “incredibly challenging and not ambitious enough”. 

The commitments it makes are “pushing the limits of what is possible in terms of society and politics and institutions”, he told The Journal

In terms of the sectoral breakdown yet to be published, Dr Torney said there is concern that “the sector that shouts the loudest” may get lower reduction targets. 

A recent report in the Business Post outlined that the electricity sector may have to reduce emissions by up to 80% while agriculture could see reductions of at least 21% under the new budgets. 

Eamon Ryan told RTÉ radio that the energy sector would make the largest changes because it is a sector “full of opportunity”. 

“[Based on reports] the sector doing the extra effort is clearly electricity and that’s going to be really challenging to meet and I would have concerns about that,” Dr Torney said. 

Climate action is expensive, but there are upsides for a lot of people and these are discussed in detail in the CCAC technical report.

“In addition to the direct benefits of climate action in avoiding dangerous climate change, climate action itself can bring about more immediate indirect benefits,” the report said. 

“There are significant indirect benefits to ambitious mitigation which can accrue in this decade including benefits for human health, air and water quality, biodiversity and energy cost savings.”

Dr Torney said these benefits should be emphasised more, along with focusing on the “costs of inaction”. 

“We hear a lot about the cost of the transition, but there’s also a cost associated with not doing anything,” he said.  

‘We will have to do more in the years ahead’

Director of Friends of the Earth Ireland, Oisín Coghlan, said the summer months – with extreme temperatures and flooding across many parts of the world – gave us a “taste” of what’s down the line in a warming world. 

“The longer we wait, the more costly and disruptive the action will be,” Coghlan said. 

Not acting is a lose-lose, acting can be a win-win. We avoid the worst of climate change and we create a healthier, cleaner and safer future.

He said discussion around climate action can focus on “short-term impacts” rather than the long-term benefits along with the risks of inaction.

Short-term impacts of some climate action – not all – is inconvenience or stress around taxation, for example, but the longer-term impacts are two-fold – when you get there, it’s better and secondly, if you don’t do this climate action, the alternative is far, far worse.

“The alternative to any of this is not the status quo, it’s not our pre-Covid normal. The alternative is accelerating climate breakdown,” he said. 

Coghlan said the proposed carbon budgets are “good enough for now, but we will have to do more in the years ahead”. 

“It’s both very challenging and still not our fair share of the effort required to meet the Paris Agreement temperature goals, but it is in line with what the EU is doing, what the UK is doing, what the US is doing.”

The CCAC technical report said the proposed budgets are “consistent with an appropriate contribution by the State to global efforts to limit climate change” within the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

This means limiting global temperature increase to well below two degrees Celsius but preferably to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. 

How the budget was made

Although called the carbon budget, the plan applies to the reduction of greenhouse gases (GHG) overall. Carbon dioxide is one GHG, along with others such as methane.

The quantities and figures in the budget are expressed in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO 2 eq). 

The government needs to allocate specific emission limits on a sector-by-sector basis. 

Eamon Ryan said every sector “will need to play its part” and the specific targets will be “based on their respective starting points and the relative difficulty, cost, speed and benefits of reducing emissions”.

Marie Donnelly – chair of the council behind the carbon budgets – said that the budget decisions were based on the science behind “where we are and where we need to get to”. 

She told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland: “The really clear message is that we need to take action now in order to get the benefit of the emission reductions in the second budget period,” Donnelly said. 

The action takes place now and the benefit will come through in the second budget. 

“It became quite evident that given our starting point, and given the absolute essential nature of investment in enabling infrastructure and the need to do that now, that we would not be able to operate a straight linear line from 2021 to 2030. That we would have to balance the two budgets across the decade.”

‘Game changer’

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

Ó Gallachóir, a professor of energy engineering at University College Cork, said the carbon budgets “allow us time to put in place the measures, the changes that need to take place to reduce our emissions”. 

“I think it’s a game changer… It changes the signal to early action being much more valuable than delayed action,” he told The Journal

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He said the focus on more long-term reductions rather than “having a target in a particular year” will help this kind of thinking around immediate action for further benefits down the line. 

“It will be interesting to see what happens in terms of the approval process in the Oireachtas and the allocation of these carbon budgets to the individual sectors,” he said. 

He said this ambition needs to be followed by “significant action” and a “huge amount of investment”.

‘Transformational changes’

The CCAC report on the carbon budgets did not mince words about the large challenges ahead in reducing emissions across the board. It was also clear on the cost and outcomes of not rising to these challenges. 

It said: “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.”

Marie Donnelly also 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”.

“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,” she said. 

Donnelly said the carbon budgets are not the only solution, but they “provide a framework”. 

“It will ultimately fall to each sector of our economy to create their own pathways and solutions to reduce their emissions within that framework,” she said. 

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