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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland File image from 2014 of coastal flooding in Bray, Co Wicklow.

Climate change: What can Ireland learn from the most recent IPCC report?

Europe, along with most of the rest of the world, will be impacted by temperature increases, water scarcity, sea level rise and more floods.

THE LATEST UN climate report released last week outlined that there has been a “substantial increase” in extreme events and other climate change impacts in Europe in recent years.

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that 3.3-3.6 billion people and a high proportion of species are vulnerable to climate change.

The stark report was described as an “atlas of human suffering” by the secretary general of the UN. 

The findings made clear that climate change is already causing severe and widespread disruption around the world. 

Emeritus Professor of Geography at Maynooth University John Sweeney said that increased flooding and rainfall are “by far the most important impacts that Ireland will have to face”.

“The modelling for Ireland suggests that we’re going to experience increased flood events from heavier winter rainfall events, especially in the west of Ireland in winter, and we’re going to experience increasing drought problems, especially in the east of Ireland in summer,” Sweeney told The Journal

“We won’t have the really high mortality for heat waves that we expect in southern Europe, but we will notice an increase in summer heatwave mortality.

“I think what the report is telling us really is that the problem is increasing faster than we appreciated before and that the impacts, therefore, are being driven quicker and to a more severe extent,” Sweeney said. 

The overall conclusion is obviously that the developed world can’t take a backseat anymore to the problem because the problem of climate change is now coming home to roost, not just in the developing countries but in the developed world as well.  

The report is the second part of the IPCC’s overall sixth assessment report due to come out later this year. 

Countries have to both adapt to the impacts of climate change and also drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the report emphasised.

Adapting to rising temperatures, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events means changing where we choose to live, how we plan cities and towns and changing our infrastructure by adding nature back into cities, for example. 

Risks in Europe

Temperatures in Europe will rise at a rate exceeding the global average temperature change, the previous IPCC report released last August found. 

The main risks for Europe are water scarcity, flooding, sea level rise and temperature increases and the impacts this will have on people and crops.

Sea level rise “represents an existential threat for coastal communities and their cultural heritage”, especially after 2100, the report released last week said. 

On natural ecosystems, John Sweeney said: “We are already seeing extinctions, we’re already seeing species moving north and moving uphill,”

That’s something that’s irreversible, and the report talks about irreversible losses quite a lot in the context of resilience and so on, but it’s quite clear that the report is making the point that we have forfeited a lot of options because of our inaction.  

“Options for adaptation in particular, that we might have had 10 years ago or now off the agenda. And indeed, the adaptation that we’re planning may not be sufficient in some cases to cope with the extremes that are coming down the line.

“We’re already seeing increases in extremes, especially of floods and droughts, and we can expect to see those becoming enhanced in the years ahead.”

The report also offers solutions – including storing and reusing water, adapting urban planning to manage heat risks and changing farming practices and land use. 

Professor Richard Dawson, one of the lead authors on the report, said that managing the risks of coastal flooding and other climate change impacts are “more feasible” if the global temperature rise does not exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“That is going to be a big challenge, so that would apply to Ireland, the UK and across Europe. This is why it’s really important that we adapt our coastal infrastructure and settlements and also mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” he told The Journal last week. 

Rising problems

The world has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The IPCC said this is expected to reach or exceed 1.5 degrees over the next 20 years. 

Until emissions are curbed and the world is decarbonised, the risks continue to stack up. 

The report said that the number of deaths and people at risk of heat stress will increase two-to-threefold at 3 degrees of warming compared to 1.5 degrees.

The risk of water scarcity would apply to more than one-third of people in southern Europe with a 2 degree rise. The risk would increase for the rest of Europe with a 3 degree rise. 

Similarly, at a 3 degree rise the amount of people impacted by rain and river flooding could double.

Coastal flood damage could increase at least 10-fold by the end of this century, with risks of an increased or sooner increase with current adaptation and mitigation measures.

There is very high confidence that warming will decrease suitable habitat space for land and sea ecosystems and irreversibly change their composition.

Fire-prone areas are also projected to expand in Europe, threatening biodiversity and carbon sinks such as forests and oceans. 

John Sweeney said: “We can’t protect all the coast, and we’re going to have to come to terms with planned retreat in some areas of the coast.

“Mitigation has to be the first and foremost thing and that means playing our part internationally. But it is true that no matter what we do as a small island, a lot will depend on what happens in the rest of the world and so we do need to spend money on adapting for floods especially.” 

Dr Diarmuid Torney, professor at the school of law and government in Dublin City University and co-director of DCU’s centre for climate and society, said the report is a “pretty grim read”. 

“It’s not anything terribly surprising to anyone paying attention to climate change and projections over recent years,” he said. 

Nonetheless having it all captured and distilled into one report and particularly the summary for policymakers makes for pretty grim reading.

“But it does identify pathways forward and a possible response.”  

The co-chair of the working group behind the report said there is a “brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future”. 

Torney said adaptation can often be thought of as something needed for “poorer countries or something for the distant future” but this report makes clear that is not the case. 

“We know from the Climate Change Advisory Council’s annual review last year that they gave the Irish government a pretty poor report card on adaptation. 

Media and civil society and a lot of political system focuses on mitigation and that’s one of the things also that comes through in the report. 

More adaptation measures should be dealt with alongside biodiversity restoration, nature-based solutions and this may be aided by the upcoming biodiversity citizens’ assembly, Torney said. 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said in the Dáil last week that the report is “very worrying indeed” and that more work is needed to protect Ireland’s ecosystems. 

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the report was “stark” and serves as a reminder that Ireland needs to “fully implement” its climate action plan, but also “plan for adaptation”.

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