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'A new set of solutions': What measures can Ireland take to limit global warming this century?

Governments, industries and households all have a role they can play in achieving climate goals.

A march for climate action in Dublin city centre, 2019
A march for climate action in Dublin city centre, 2019
Image: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

IT’S STILL POSSIBLE to limit global warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius – that’s the message that emerged from a major UN report published on climate change this week.

The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that “deep reductions” in carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are crucial to prevent the planet from warming by more than 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.

Keeping the temperature rise below that level would allow the planet to avert some of the worst effects of climate change.

A reduction in emissions could stabilise global temperatures in the next twenty to thirty years and improve air quality in the near future, the report said.

Nearly six years ago, the Paris agreement saw 195 countries agree to limit a rise in temperature to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius and to aim for no more than 1.5.

The science in the latest IPCC report states more clearly than any previous study that humans are the primary cause of emissions and that the implications for not meeting those targets are severe.

Minister Eamon Ryan said that the report was a “stark reminder” of the limited time available to prevent further negative consequences from climate change.

“For Ireland and Europe the report predicts more intense heatwaves and increased flooding as temperatures rise. If global temperatures rise by more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels there will be critical consequences for agriculture and health,” he said.

So what will it take for Ireland to lower emissions and what does that look like for our everyday lives?

We spoke to Green Party junior minister Ossian Smyth and climate experts Dr Hannah Daly and Dr Conor Murphy on the climb to reaching climate targets and protecting ourselves from climate change.

Halving emissions in ten years

leaders-of-the-cop21-united-nations-climate-change-conference-celebrate-reaching-a-global-agreement-on-greenhouse-gas-emissions-december-12-2015-in-le-bourget-france-l-r-include-special-represe French and UN leaders after a climate agreement was reached at COP21 in Paris, 2015 Source: Alamy Stock Photo

In 2017 the last government put forward a plan for tackling climate change which allowed for emissions to rise over the five year lifetime of the plan – taking us up to 2022.

Last summer, the Supreme Court ruled that the plan fell “well short” of being specific enough to provide the transparency required under a law that came into effect in 2015 – namely the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act.

A new Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act sets out targets to halve emissions by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2050.

The president signed it into law in July, making the targets legally binding.

A new Climate Action Plan is set to be published later this year which will outline the steps the government intends to take towards meeting those goals – with one of the most important steps to be insulating houses, Green Party junior minister Ossian Smyth told The Journal.

Retrofitting insulation into houses should help to reduce electricity bills and usage by making homes warmer, Smyth said.

A plan to retrofit insulation into half a million homes over the next decade is expected to cost €25 billion.

Secondly, the government needs to tackle emissions from transport.

“The two points of our approach are to make sure we spend twice as much money on public transport investment as on roads, and also to make sure that we spend one million a day on walking and cycling,” Smyth said.

“We want to give people alternatives to having to drive to work every day, to get out of the daily grind of the commute. Although the pandemic is awful, one of the only silver linings from it is that the era of everybody commuting to work at 9am looks like it’s over.”

There’s also energy, which involves replacing fossil fuel power stations with wind and solar.

Our big aim there is to get a lot of offshore wind – to do five gigawatts of offshore wind.

“We’re choosing who the people [to work on it] are and building it out but it takes a long time, it takes about five to seven years to build an offshore wind farm. That’s likely to come in the second half of the decade.”

Some of those projects are funded by income from the carbon tax – a tax on fuels like kerosene, liquid petroleum and natural gas introduced in 2010 – which is set to increase by €7.50 each year until 2029 and by €6.50 in 2030 under the programme for government.

“What we agreed was that half of it will go to retrofitting homes and one-third would go in social welfare increases to offset the loss of money from the poorest people who are suffering because they’re on minimum wage and trying to run a car or have a cold house and the price of fuel has gone up and so on, and then the remainder of the money goes to farmers.”

But the carbon tax regularly attracts criticism, especially from opposition TDs who say it’s unfair to tax people who have no option right now but to use fossil fuels.

Agriculture

In 2019, concentrations of methane, which comes largely from the livestock sector, were at their highest for at least the past 800,000 years globally, the IPCC report said.

That’s true in Ireland too – a new Irish study from the Environmental Protection Agency, Met Éireann and the Marine Institute found measurements of methane (and CO2 and nitrous oxide) taken at Mace Head in Galway in 2019 were the highest since measurements began.

“Agriculture is a massive challenge. I don’t think anyone doubts that it’s the most difficult one to do,” Smyth said.

“It involves trying to move away from our previous model of carbon-intensive farming purely aimed at food all the time and trying to make large volumes of food for export, and seeing if we can find alternative ways for farmers to get the same income without the same emissions,” he said.

“One of the ways of doing that is that a portion of the money from the carbon tax is being ring-fenced for farmers for environmental schemes to go on top of their CAP payments.”

a-cow-resting-in-a-pasture-on-the-dingle-pennisula-county-kerry-ireland A cow in the Dingle Peninsula, Co Kerry Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Dr Hannah Daly, an environment and energy researcher at University College Cork, identified that the IPCC report shows that strong and immediate reductions in methane are the best chance we have of limiting global warming.

“Methane mainly comes from agriculture, and in Ireland we have one of the highest per capita levels of methane emissions from agriculture in the world because of our beef and dairy industry,” Dr Daly said.

“If we set a strong limit on methane emissions and agriculture emissions, that can create opportunities for farmers and allow them to be part of the green transition,” she said.

Greener ventures for farmers could be the production of low carbon fuels, building solar farms, and growing trees.

“These are all solutions that require a shift away from livestock, so there’s a win-win there.”

New solutions

The IPCC report, as well as the new climate bill, have raised the bar for what needs to be achieved to lower emissions and mitigate temperature rises.

“The 2030 target forces us to look at a whole different set of solutions and there’s no sector or emitting source that can be overlooked or can have a lower target,” Dr Daly said.

Alongside agriculture, another industry that could require structural change is the production of cement.

“There’s a need to look at decarbonising cement production,” she said.

“The emissions from cement are significant and will probably grow given our need to build houses and infrastructure.”

Fundamentally, Ireland needs to look at energy and how to reduce the amount of energy we need to use.

“The previous climate action plan only really looked at switching technologies – switching cars for an electric vehicle, an oil burner for heat pump, coal for wind,” Dr Daly said.

“We need to look at the drivers of energy demand – which are how we move around, whether we use a car, the size of houses we’re building, where houses are built, how much of it goes to data centres, how much additional electricity is on the grid.”

It’s important for the government to invest in innovation to develop technologies that help guard against climate change, Dr Daly said.

“2030 is only eight years away and we have to halve emissions by then… that’s only half of the battle. We have to get to zero and negative emissions after that.

“That will require a complete transformation of the energy system, new technologies and fuels for everything, so we need to keep investing in innovation and science to bring about that change.”

While the power to take action against the climate crisis on a broad scale largely lies with governments and corporations, experts say there are still measures that individuals and households can adopt that have a meaningful impact.

Everyone has talents and individual influence in whatever stream they’re in and if they can use that to push for positive systemic change in whatever way they can, in their schools, in their families, in their businesses, if they’re decision-makers – that’s how systemic change will come about.

“Real change comes about from individuals acting together and so there is a lot of power in individual choices, but I don’t say that to say ‘don’t eat red meat’. You can reduce your own carbon footprint by not eating red meat or driving the car as little as possible, but I would shy away from a big emphasis on so-called behaviour change… I don’t like that expression because it implies that people behave badly.”

So what can we do? “Use your vote. Vote with your wallet. Use your influence within whatever organisation you work in to question practices – basically, people sticking their neck out. It’s uncomfortable, a lot of these conversations are uncomfortable and people don’t like sticking their neck out but you can have a positive influence that way.”

Safeguarding against climate risks

There are scores of proposed and planned actions – and even projects already under way – to mitigate the effects of climate change, but we’re already feeling the impacts of it and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

At Maynooth University’s Icarus Climate Research Centre, Dr Conor Murphy’s research focuses on adaptation, examining how to protect people and the environment from the fallout of climate change.

Speaking to The Journal, Dr Murphy said that “climate change is happening now, we’re vulnerable to these changes, and we’ve seen the extreme weather events in recent years that we’re vulnerable to, from Storm Desmond in 2016 to the drought in 2018 and the spring drought last year”.

“We’ve seen major flood events. A lot of our cities are on the outlets of major rivers right on the coast, so are vulnerable to the impacts of both rising sea levels and changes in flooding,” Dr Murphy said.

file-photo-global-climate-change-is-having-a-clear-effect-on-irish-weather-making-it-wetter-and-warmer-according-to-a-new-report-from-the-environmental-protection-agency-met-eireann-and-the-marine Flooding after the River Suir burst its banks following Storm Frank in 2015 Source: Eamonn Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

“We know that the likelihood of heat events has dramatically increased over the period of observation since 1900 and is going to increase in the future. Our warmest summer in 1995 is likely to become a ‘cool’ summer by the end of the century,” he said.

These large changes in Ireland’s climate patterns indicate a need for systems that will be functional as temperatures warm and extreme weather events increase – and infrastructure is a crucial part of that.

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“Infrastructure is often designed to protect against a certain standard of flooding or particular standard of storm surge associated with winter storms. The first question you have to ask is if the standards of design stack up, and in a lot of cases, they won’t,” Dr Murphy explained.

“We need to think about how we design our infrastructure and what we can do to ensure they continue to operate and provide the protection that we need,” he said.

“Whether that’s agriculture, water resources, energy, transport – it’s not just the greenhouse gases you have to think about but that climate change is happening and so how do we reduce the risks from it.”

One of the key areas to take action on in Ireland, Dr Murphy said, is the water system, which is “right at the heart of how we think about adapting to climate change”.

If we’re thinking about dryer summers and drought events, do we have enough water to meet needs? On the flip side of that, what about when we have too much water during wetter winters, heavy rainfall events, and making sure that we have adequate protection from extremes?”

Another measure that can help both to prevent emissions and adapt to climate change effects is forestry.

Well-planned forests can contribute to limiting greenhouse gas emissions and also to slowing the flow of heavy precipitation during extreme weather events.

“We have to ensure that we’re prepared for the changes that are happening and that are to come,” Dr Murphy said.

“It needs to happen across all of our spheres from individual households to local authorities to businesses to government. It’s going to take resources and financing to provide the expertise, the capital in terms of investment in infrastructure, in planning,” he said.

In the housing sector, when houses are being built – “Where are they going to go? Are they going to go in flood risk areas? Are they going to be designed to account for warmer conditions and more intense rainfall events?”

“Individuals that are in high risk areas for flooding can bring in personal barriers to their property for flood waters or if flooding is an issue for them, putting electrical sockets higher on the walls.”

What happens now?

In this century, how climate change plays out depends on our level of emissions, how much global warming they cause, and how the climate system responds to that warming, the IPCC report found.

In November, world leaders will meet in Glasgow for COP26 to negotiate new climate agreements for the coming years.

The Paris agreement was born in 2015 from COP21, and now, faced with clearer science and less time, leaders will be expected to go beyond their previous promises.

“I’m expecting that with these climate change meetings, if the big countries don’t come in and commit, it kind of makes a joke of the whole thing and it makes it hard to say to developing countries ‘will you also do things’,” Smyth said.

“This year, partly because China and America look like they are going to do something really significant this time around, hopes are really high.”

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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