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What climate plans did Ireland set out in 2021, and how do things look for next year?

Let’s take a look back at the climate policies and goals Ireland put forward over the last 12 months.

THIS DECADE IS critical when it comes to preventing the worst impacts of the climate crisis.

After years of discussing climate action but still seeing emissions rise globally, the time has come to reduce them on a massive scale. 

Ireland released a lot of new plans and policies around climate in 2021 and it was a year in which the effects of climate change were seen in extreme weather events around the world.

As we continue into this crucial decade, let’s take a look back at some of the key climate developments this year, and how Ireland fares heading into 2022. 

An overview of 2021

On a global scale, we saw a lot of extreme weather events this year.  Flooding in countries like Belgium and Germany, wildfires in Greece and Turkey, heat extremes in Canada and the US, droughts in Chile and Brazil and, very recently, a devastating typhoon in the Philippines. 

Climate science shows that as the global temperature rises, extreme weather events happen more often.

wildfire-in-kehries-greece-05-aug-2021 Firefighters and local volunteers battling a fire on Evia Island in Greece in August. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

This was outlined clearly in a recent report from a working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This report found that human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is “unprecedented” in at least the last 2,000 years.

Natural drivers in warming are factors such as solar and volcanic activity, but human activities are having a much higher impact, the report found.

“Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe,” it said.

Assistant professor at the school of law and government in Dublin City University Sadhbh O’Neill said that “unfortunately, I think the wave of climate disasters that we saw in 2021 are not likely to just vanish”.

“They’re not going to melt away. It wasn’t a blip here. It’s going to be the new normal.

This is what the climate scientists are saying. We’re going to see extreme weather events popping up all over the place in unexpected times and places with unprecedented impacts.

Other IPCC working groups will release reports in the first few months of 2022, spelling out even clearer the current climate situation and the direction the planet is heading without immediate and drastic changes. 

Climate Action Plan

NO FEE CLIMATE ACTION PLAN JB7 (1) Leo Varadkar, Micheál Martin and Eamon Ryan at the launch of the Climate Action Plan in November. Julian Behal Julian Behal

Alongside the real-world effects seen across the globe, Ireland released a lot of proposals and targets around climate this year. 

This was the long-awaited revised plan from the government setting out sector-specific targets to reduce emissions and achieve Ireland’s climate goals. 

The Climate Action Plan set out ranges for the percentage of emissions reductions needed in each sector by 2030. The two headline climate targets Ireland must reach are a 51% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. 

This is what the science says is needed to keep the world within any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Under the plan, the electricity sector must have the biggest emissions reductions overall – 62-81%.  The other sector reductions are:

  • Transport: 42-50%
  • Buildings: 44-56%
  • Industry/enterprise: 29-41%
  • Agriculture: 22-30%
  • Land use, land use change and forestry: 37-58%

There has been criticism over the reduction target for the agriculture sector considering it accounts for 37% of Ireland’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency

Many of the targets are the same as the ones that were set out in the original Climate Action Plan in 2019 – to retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030 and recycle 70% of packaging waste, for example.

And it includes some measures that have already been announced, like increasing the use of electric vehicles, creating a circular economy and mandating public sector bodies to move to 20% home and remote working.

DCU’s Sadhbh O’Neill said the 2021 Climate Action Plan is “more comprehensive” than the 2019 version, but believes it is still focusing too heavily on economic aspects of climate action. 

“We need to mobilise public support by showing people what green infrastructure can do for all of us in terms of improving our health, improving our local environment, making it possible for children to play safely and walk and cycle to school safely, improving air quality and generally just enhancing our wellbeing across a range of indicators,” she said.  

The Climate Action Plan couldn’t be published until after the carbon budget was released in October. 

Carbon budget

shutterstock_572596669 File image of smoke emerging from factor pipes. Shutterstock / VanderWolf Images Shutterstock / VanderWolf Images / VanderWolf Images

The Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) sent its proposed carbon budget to Environment Minister Eamon Ryan in late October after lengthy 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, which set out limits on emissions from specific sectors. 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. According to the government’s recently published annex of actions to outline timelines by which climate plans will take effect, the carbon budgets and sectoral ceilings will be finalised by mid-2022. 

COP26 commitments

un-climate-conference-cop26-in-glasgow-protest Activists outside the UN's climate summit COP26 in Glasgow in November. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

Another significant moment in climate this year was the UN’s climate summit COP26 which took place in November. 

Ireland signed up to a number of pledges at the summit, including one to end deforestation by 2030 which was signed by more than 100 other countries. However, this was criticised over how exactly it would be enforced. 

Ireland was also one of a small number of countries to sign up to the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance (BOGA), an initiative working to phase out oil and gas production. 

Around 100 countries – including Ireland – also reached a deal to cut methane emissions by 30% by 2030. However, Ireland’s reduction of methane is looking more towards a 10% cut.

Individual countries have “different challenges in that respect or produce methane at different levels in different sectors”, the Taoiseach said after criticism over Ireland’s much lower reduction target.

Climate Act 2021 

This Act put into law that Ireland must reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030 and reduce emissions to net-zero by 2050. 

The president Michael D Higgins enacted the Climate Action Bill in July and minister Ryan described it as a “landmark day” in Ireland’s transition to net-zero emissions.

Associate Professor at DCU’s school of law and government, Dr Diarmuid Torney, told The Journal earlier this year the EU climate laws were a “significant milestone” as it turned goals into binding legal commitment for EU member States, including Ireland. 

france-eu European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

CCAC annual review 

The Climate Change Advisory Council, which is tasked with advising the government on climate action and assessing Ireland’s progress, said in its recent annual review that it is concerned about missed targets and delayed measures inhibiting efforts to fight the climate crisis.

The review struck a very clear note that the government isn’t doing enough to achieve the ambitious goals it has set out, often through EU targets. It said there are multiple “critical gaps” between climate policies and actions the government is actually taking to achieve them. 

It pointed to Ireland’s failure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% under an EU target for 2020 and projections that Ireland will also fail to stay within a 2030 EU limit.

Even with the targets that were set out in the Climate Action Plan, there is still a gap of four metric tonnes in emissions between how far they need to fall and how much they are expected to, the review said.

flood germany Excavators load building rubble and flotsam onto trucks in Germany near the Ahr river, which was devastated by floods during the summer. PA PA

Marie Donnelly, the council’s chair, said that “Ireland’s failure to meet its targets is due to not matching the ambition of plans with timely and complete delivery of actions”.

“For example, many of the measures in the original 2019 Climate Action Plan have been delayed,” Donnelly said. “The time-lag between policy development, implementation and actual emissions reduction means that unless Government takes action now, we will be unable to meet our targets in future years.

“The implementation of the carbon budgets published by the Council in October will be unachievable if this pattern within Irish climate policy is not overcome,” she said.

Donnelly said there “remains a real need for more meaningful leadership and coordination regarding adaptation” in government. 

Looking to the future 

Ireland missed several climate targets for 2020, and it has even more challenging ones to meet by 2030. 

The EPA said that overall greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 3.6% in 2020 compared to 2019.  It said this was largely driven by the impact of Covid-19 on transport, which highlights that “Ireland is still not on the pathway required to meet future targets and a climate neutral economy”. 

Emissions decreased in certain sectors like transport and energy, but they actually increased in sectors such as households and agriculture.

There was a 9% increase in the emissions from residential homes, which the EPA says was due to a colder winter in 2020, more people working from home and cheaper oil prices.

shutterstock_168915965 File image of smoke exiting a chimney in a home. Shutterstock / manasesistvan Shutterstock / manasesistvan / manasesistvan

Assistant professor at DCU Sadhbh O’Neill said it will be a “big challenge” for Ireland to meet its 2030 targets.

“I don’t think the government is adequately prepared for the kind of sweeping changes that are going to be required across the board,” she said. 

In terms of public support for the measures, O’Neill said it’s obvious the public wants climate action but “you have to paint a picture of our society and what it needs to look like for it to be decarbonised”.

A recent EPA report found that nine in ten people believe Ireland has a responsibility to act on climate change and reduce greenhouse emissions.

“It’s necessary, but it’s also going to be good for all of us. And we have so many challenges to overcome and if were going to be squabbling and fighting about every single measure, every single little bit of cycle lane, every single little bit of anything – it’s going to not only slow down progress, but it’s going to undermine public confidence that we’re heading in the right direction.

We’re going to have to take radical action. We’re going to have to do things that we don’t want to do.

“We’re going to have to cut back our consumption, we’re going to have to cut back on flying, we’re going to have to cut back on meat and dairy. And this is at a global level, but particularly for developed countries and it’s just what has to be done.

“We have to kind of get into the frame of thinking about it – that it’s an emergency. And it’s not just that we’re doing it to create a beautiful world, we’re doing it because it’s an emergency.”

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