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No Excuses

'Climate needs to be at the heart of all decision-making' - Irish expert

A new climate report has shown that countries’ current plans aren’t enough to reach international targets.

CLIMATE SHOULD BE a central focus of decisions made by both governments and individuals, a leading Irish expert has said.

A major new climate report published today has identified that countries’ current climate plans will likely not be sufficient to keep temperature rises to a minimum, but that the world does have options available to reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the culmination of nearly a decade’s worth of research into the physical science of the climate crisis and how to keep it at bay.

Professor Peter Thorne, a climatologist at Maynooth University, is a IPCC lead author and, of the hundreds of scientists who worked on the report, was one of 10 to speak at a press conference today on its release.

In an interview with Irish reporters, he outlined that Ireland is already experiencing adverse impacts of climate change and that decisions must be “climate-proofed” for the future to reduce emissions and prevent further harm.

“If we’re going to play our part, then we must put climate at the heart of every single decision,” Professor Thorne said. “Nearly every action should be climate-proofed for the future if we’re going to reach targets.”

“It’s not just the government – it’s communities and it’s individuals and it’s our choices,” he said, pointing to the abundance of fossil-fuel powered vehicles with large engines on Irish roads as an “alarming” sign of a “lack of understanding by many citizens as to the consequences of their personal decisions”.

“If we continue to make these choices that are climate negative, we double down on the problem.” 

Keeping 1.5 alive?

The new IPCC report confirmed that countries’ collective plans for 2030 make it likely that temperatures will rise by more than 1.5°C during the 21st century and make it harder to limit warming below 2°C.

Those thresholds were set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, where countries agreed to try to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees and aim for 1.5 to prevent the worst impacts of the crisis.

Professor Thorne explained it is likely that temperatures will pass the 1.5 mark in the early 2030s but whether they remain at that level, drop, or continue to grow depends on action taken now.

“Whether it’s reached and exceeded slightly, or reached and blasted right through and heading towards two and even three, fundamentally depends upon how meaningful our action is now,” he said.

“If we cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half by 2030 globally, if we reach net zero by 2050 and even net-negative for co2 hereafter, then we could limit warming to 1.5 degrees this century and even reduce it by the end of the century a little bit.”

SYR SPM IPCC IPCC

If strong action had been taken in the 1980s or 90s, “when we knew there was a problem”, there would be far more options available now, Professor Thorne said.

“There are no more excuses not to take action. There haven’t been really for a long time.

“The longer we delay, the fewer options we have, the harder it will be to really try and strive to keep it below 1.5. If we’re going to meet the the aspirations of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement that was agreed under its auspices, we really cannot delay any more.”

The differences between 1.5 or 2 or 3 or 4 degrees of warming are exponential; the more that temperatures are allowed to rise, the increasingly worse the impacts will become.

“While the temperature might linearly go from 1.1, where we are today, to 1.5 and from 1.5 to 2, the impacts do not. The impacts scale, very, very quickly,” Professor Thorne explained.

“1.5 is much worse than 1; 2 is much, much, much worse than 1.1; and 3 is getting into potentially cataclysmic scale change,” he said.

“It’s important to stress that that’s why it’s important to keep to 1.5 and not to get to 2 or 3 or 4. The impacts will not scale linearly with the temperature – they will increase very, very rapidly with temperature globally, and that extends to an Irish national context.”

‘The government needs to get serious about plugging the gap’

While some countries, particularly small island nations or least-developed countries, are more vulnerable to climate change than others, Ireland can expect to feel the impacts of the crisis more and more in the years to come.

Projections by the Environmental Protection Agency have predicted more frequent heatwaves, less rainfall in spring and summer and more heavy rainfall events in winter and autumn (which has knock-on impacts for sectors like farming), sea level rise, and increased coastal erosion, as well as flooding and damage to property and infrastructure.

Ireland is already seeing increasing evidence of the impacts of climate change, Professor Thorne said today, from Storm Desmond in 2015 to the heatwave of summer 2022.

The government has adopted legally-binding carbon budgets to regulate the amount of emissions the country can afford to produce up to 2035 and allocated a set amount of emissions to each sector, known as the ‘sectoral emissions ceilings’.

However, the land use and forestry sector – which, depending on how human interact with the natural world, can either be a source of emissions or can store greenhouse gases, preventing them from being released – has not yet been allocated a ceiling nearly nine months later.

Additionally, the sectoral ceilings did not add up to the total reductions that must be made, with 26 megatonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (MtCO2eq) left unallocated, prompting criticism.

climate action plan 112 (1) The coalition leaders at a press conference following the release of the Climate Action Plan 2023 Sam Boal / Rollingnews.ie Sam Boal / Rollingnews.ie / Rollingnews.ie

Professor Thorne said that the government “needs to get serious about plugging the gap”.

“We need to be honest about the fact that we are almost unique in a European context in having positive net emissions from land use. Nearly every other country in Europe has net negative land use emissions,” he said.

“But we need to do this in a way that is a just transition, that protects farmers, that protects farmers’ livelihoods, that protects rural Ireland.

There are very unique challenges but also opportunities in rural Ireland if we do it right, but it’s got to stop being a bunfight between environmental activists on one side and farmers on the other side.

“Let’s get serious, let’s start having the difficult conversations, let’s find the solutions that are appropriate for rural Ireland – that protect the livelihoods of rural Ireland but also protect our climate,” he said.

“I’m not going to pretend that that will be easy. It’s not a sound bite, it’s a plea to actually start a grown-up conversation where we recognize we have a problem.

Farmers are the custodians of our rural landscape. They do not, I fundamentally believe, want to leave rural Ireland in a worse place than it is today. So how can we get into a serious conversation where we have serious grown ups solutions, and not a war of sound bites?”

The IPCC has pointed out that the world has the necessary tools and knowledge to combat the climate crisis and options available that are feasible, cost-effectively and generally supported by the public, including switching to renewable energy, increasing energy efficiency, improving the management of forestry and grasslands and reducing food waste.

However, there are institutional barriers that must be overcome to implement those strategies at a large scale.

Professor Thorne said that there are “many vested interests who have a huge amount of financial interest in the status quo”.

“We also need to get at the status quo bias of people. Many people cannot imagine change and are scared of change,” he said.

But change can be slow and then incredibly rapid. If you think back to, for example, the 1910s, transport was trams and horse and cart. By the 1920s, it was almost entirely cars. So change can be very slow and then can happen all of a sudden.

“We need to get that change all of a sudden going here. With all of these tools, we need to get people putting up solar panels on their rooftops, we need to get people deciding to take public transport or active transport options and where they can’t, to use the battery electric vehicle – to not have it be a huge vehicle, but a vehicle that actually meets their needs,” he said.

“Thinking about what they’re eating and the consequences of what they’re eating, whether they need to travel to a long distance meeting, all kinds of things like that.

“It’s going to be the sum total of small behavioural changes, but people are scared of the change and we need leaders in communities to show that you can do it.”

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