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From adaptation to zero emissions: An A-Z of climate change in Ireland

Here’s your one-stop-shop guide to key climate terms.

COP26 STARTS TODAY, a major climate summit where the world’s eyes will be on global leaders as countries seek to negotiate new climate agreements.

This month, we’ve been taking a deep dive into climate at The Journal as part of The Good Information Project.

It’s a complex topic that comes with some complex language, so we’ve put together this introductory glossary to cover some of the key terms you’ll probably hear in conversations about the climate.

Adaptation

Adaptation is one of the two key approaches to responding to the climate crisis, alongside mitigation.

Adaptation looks at protecting people and the environment from the fallout and negative consequences of climate change that are already happening now or that can’t be stopped.

For example, experts believe that extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and more intense and will continue on that path if global warming persists. An adaptation measure in that area could be to put up defences in an area at risk of flooding.

Biodiversity

Biodiversity includes all of the different kinds of life on Earth such as animals, plants and bacteria. 

Alongside the climate crisis, the world is facing a biodiversity crisis – global warming and other factors mean that natural habitats are becoming lost and a huge number of species are facing extinction.

The National Biodiversity Data Centre collects information on biodiversity in Ireland to better understand and help protect it, like through projects such as the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan or the Irish Butterfly Monitoring Scheme.

The Programme for Government compiled last year mentioned the progression of a number of Citizens’ Assemblies, including one focused on biodiversity which has yet to be scheduled – a wait environmentalists have described as “frustrating”.

wild-buzzard-on-fallen-treelouthireland A Wild Buzzard on a fallen tree in Louth Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Blue economy

The blue economy refers to activities centred around the ocean and seas, like fishing, coastal tourism, maritime transport.

Developing a sustainable blue economy that uses blue resources in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the environment is one of the EU’s climate goals. Relevant measures can be restoring ecosystems or combatting ocean pollution.

Carbon budget

Carbon budgets set limits on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that an entity – usually a country – should not surpass based on the impact that emissions have on the climate and global temperatures.

The Climate Change Advisory Council has proposed Ireland’s first ever carbon budget to Minister for the Environment and Climate Eamon Ryan, who can now put it forward to Government. If adopted, the budget will impose emissions limits in five-year cycles for the next fifteen years to try to ensure the country reaches its legal obligations on the climate.

Carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is a measure of how much a particular set of behaviours and activities contribute to carbon emissions. It’s a concept that’s often used in discussions about individual action and reducing your impact on the environment through measures like reducing trips in planes and cars, insulating your home, or eating less meat.

It has a complicated history – BP, one of the world’s largest oil companies, popularised the term in the early 2000s, and it’s often used in advertising by fossil fuel companies. Some climate activists argue that it allows companies with large emissions to shift the responsibility away from themselves and onto consumers.

Carbon sinks

Carbon sinks are reservoirs that store carbon and reduce its concentration in the atmosphere. Oceans and forests are natural carbon sinks because they can absorb more carbon than they release, but it can also be captured and stored artificially through technologies.

Carbon tax

A carbon tax is applied to fuels like coal, oil, natural gas and peat as part of measures to discourage the use of carbon-emitting fuels and incentivise renewable energy sources, such as buying an electric vehicle instead of petrol or diesel.

In Ireland, the tax is charged at €41 per tonne of carbon for petrol and diesel and €33.50 for other fuels (but will increase to €41 for those also from 1 May 2022). It’s set to rise by €7.50 each year until it reaches €100 per tonne.

Announcing the details of the tax in Budget 2022, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohue said the government is “conscious” about how the €7.50 increase will impact people vulnerable to fuel poverty and that the additional funding will go towards targeted social welfare initiatives.

However, Sinn Féin climate spokesperson Darren O’Rourke said the carbon tax will “penalise not incentivise” and that it “rewards those who are wealthy enough to avoid the tax by switching to alternatives – buying an electric vehicle, moving to public transport, retrofitting their home – while targeting those who are just about getting by.

CDR

CDR is an acronym for carbon dioxide removal, which is the removal or ‘drawing down’ of CO2 from the atmosphere.

The most recent IPCC report said that the potential of CDR to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in reservoirs could mean that if emissions targets are not met, the difference could potentially be made up by removing the residual emissions.

However, experts emphasise that CDR alone would not be sufficient to address climate change and that significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential, as well as raising other problems with the technology, such as the high cost.

In September, a CDR plant that turns carbon dioxide into rock started to operate in Iceland – the largest like it in the world – and can remove 4,000 tonnes from the air each year.

Climate finance

What it says on the tin. Climate finance is funding allocated to measures seeking to address the climate crisis, especially assistance given by developed countries to others with fewer resources.

The EU has a target for member states to collectively allocate $100 billion USD (over €866.7 million) per year towards international climate finance until 2025.

In 2019, Ireland set a commitment of doubling the proportion of Official Development Assistance (international aid) spent on climate finance by 2030, which amounted to at least €80 million in 2019.

Climate sensitivity

When we’re looking at changes to the climate system, climate sensitivity is a measure of the forecasted response, such as how much different levels of greenhouse gas emissions could cause temperatures to rise.

COP26

From today, delegates from countries around the world will meet in Glasgow for COP26, the UN convention on the climate crisis.

World leaders will seek to negotiate new climate agreements and face scrutiny from academics, NGOs and journalists who attend the two-week event. 

The Journal reporter Orla Dwyer is at COP26 for the next fortnight. Get updates from her on what happens each day here

Countries are being asked to present targets for reducing emissions by 2030 that align with aims to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, as well as measures to protect ecosystems, deliver climate finance, and accelerate climate action. 

signs-advertising-cop26-hang-from-lamp-posts-near-to-the-scottish-event-campus-in-glasgow-where-cop26-is-being-held-picture-date-friday-october-29-2021 A rainy Friday in Glasgow two days before the start of COP26 Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Fit For 55

Fit For 55 is a European Union plan aimed at “re-engineering” existing legislation on climate, energy and transport in a bid to meet climate goals, like the target to reduce emissions by 55% by 2030.

Speaking in the Dáil, Minister Eamon Ryan said the plan, which is currently being discussed in the EU, is “probably the most broad and connected legislative package the European Union has ever presented” and a “dramatic signal of intent towards action”.

Global surface temperature

The average air temperature over land and at the oceans’ surface. Rises in global surface temperature, which are largely due to greenhouse gas emissions, have stark knock-on effects for the planet, such as warmer waters and air causing glaciers to melt and sea levels rising as a result.

The recent IPCC report on the physical science of climate change published this year said global surface temperatures were 1.09°C higher in 2011 to 2020 compared with 1850 to 1900, with larger increases over land (1.59°C) than over the ocean (0.88°C).

Greenhouse gas

Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are gases that absorb infrared radiation (which humans can’t see, but we feel as heat).

By trapping the radiation, GHGs prevent heat from leaving the atmosphere, which warms the planet and causes temperatures to rise. Some of the most concerning greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and chlorofluorocarbons.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Created in 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a UN body that publishes reports assessing scientific evidence on climate change. Hundreds of scientists contribute to its work and its reports are considered among the most authoritative on climate in the world.

The panel is currently working on its sixth assessment report (AR6). The first section of the report, which was released earlier this year, covered the physical science of climate change. The next two sections will examine climate change mitigation and impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

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Mitigation

Climate change mitigation, like adaptation, is a type of climate action. While adaptation looks at protecting against the consequences of climate change that are already happening or can’t be stopped, mitigation seeks to prevent those changes, such as by lowering greenhouse gas emissions to stem global temperature rises.

Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement is a legally binding agreement made in Paris at COP21 in 2015. It required countries to try to limit global warming to 1.5°C and to at least keep it “well below” a 2°C rise.

Ireland is one of 196 adoptees to the agreement, which came into force in November 2016. It’s one of the guiding principles behind Ireland’s current climate targets, like cutting emissions in half by 2030.

Precipitation

Rain, snow, sleet and hail – the various forms that condensed water vapour takes when it falls from the clouds to land.

With climate change, different areas of the world are experiencing, or are forecast to experience, different types of shifts in precipitation. Too much or too little precipitation, or a more uneven distribution of rainfall across a year, can lead to extreme weather events like flooding and droughts.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

The SDGs are 17 aims of the United Nations that, if met, would address major global challenges, such as ending poverty and hunger. Several of them deal with problems that relate to the climate.

The goals include achieving clean water and sanitation; affordable and clean energy; responsible consumption and production; and climate action.

Zero emissions

The term zero emissions is used to describe an energy source or a process that does not produce any harmful chemicals, like greenhouse gases, that damage the environment. For instance, vehicles that are powered by hydrogen fuel cells - as three Bus Éireann buses that came into service earlier this year are – do not emit greenhouse gases.

On a broader scale, it’s also used as an aim in climate targets to emphasise drastically lowering emissions and, where possible, introducing carbon dioxide removal technologies to remove carbon that has already been emitted from the atmosphere.

Ireland’s climate goal for 2050 is to achieve net zero emissions, which would mean removing as much greenhouse gases from the atmosphere as the amount that is emitted. 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are 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.

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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