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'It is much worse than you think': The climate crisis and what it means for Ireland

Ireland – like every country – faces significant challenges to respond to climate change.

Image: Shutterstock/Antonov Roman

Every morning this week, TheJournal.ie will publish an article on the international climate crisis and what it means for Ireland.

Is the country doing its part in the battle against global warming? And what effects will the efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions have on Irish society?

“IT IS WORSE, much worse, than you think,” writes David Wallace-Wells in his book The Uninhabitable Earth.

Based on a 2017 essay published in New York Magazine, the book paints a near-apocalyptic, desolate vision of the future if global greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked and the Earth’s temperatures continue to rise:

Rising sea levels flooding coastal cities; mass drought and starvation; increased conflict and social upheaval as people fight for diminishing resources; entire regions of the world becoming uninhabitable; new diseases and viruses, and old ones mutating in the heat.

This is what could be in store for the world in the decades and centuries to come if global temperatures continue to rise unchecked.

But while scenarios like this seem far away, over the last few years extreme weather events, roaring wildfires and intense heat has shown the direction in which the Earth could be headed. 

Last month was the hottest July ever recorded across the globe, slightly hotter than July 2016, the previous record holder. Across Europe, cities sweltered in temperatures far above the norm. 

This year is likely to be one of the hottest on record, joining 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016 in the top five. Temperatures have already risen by about 1.1 degrees on average since pre-industrial times, with the effects being felt across the globe.

In the last few months alone we have seen extreme events like huge wildfires burning in Siberia and Alaska, releasing more than 100 million tonnes of CO2 (more than double what Ireland releases in an entire year) into the atmosphere across June and July. 

Greenland is losing billions of tonnes more ice per day than the average, and melting four times faster than was thought

The climate crisis is also a biodiversity crisis, with plant and animal life under grave threat. A landmark report released in March found that one million animal and plant species are in danger of extinction, and that species loss is accelerating to a rate tens or hundreds of times faster than in the past.

Other studies show that over 40% of insects are threatened with extinction and that coral reefs – “the rainforests of the sea” – are being wiped out as the oceans get warmer

“I think that in Ireland and in most developed countries we’ve not yet recognised just how pressing, just how serious the climate emergency is,” DCU Professor Barry McMullin told TheJournal.ie.

“And how much time we’ve actually squandered in doing very little or nothing at all, and that delay is critically important.

The climate doesn’t just wait for us to get up and start acting. All the time we’ve spent basically ignoring it… meant that the problem was getting progressively worse and worse and worse.

In Ireland, a small island where 40% of the population live within 5km of the coast, we’re far from immune from the effects of global heating and climate change. 

As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points out, mean temperatures in Ireland increased by 0.7°C between 1890 and 2013, and the rate of temperature increase is speeding up. 

Six of the 10 warmest years in Ireland have occurred since 1990, with a reduction in the number of frost days. Temperatures are predicted to continue to rise, and the EPA predicts that adverse impacts may include: 

  • Sea levels rising
  • More intense storms and rainfall events 
  • Increased likelihood of flooding 
  • Water shortages in the summer

What are global warming and climate change? 

Throughout its many hundreds of millions of years, the Earth’s climate has experienced significant changes – with ice ages and periods of intense heat. What sets this current trend apart is the fact that human activities have caused it.

This is what’s known as anthropogenic (basically, caused by humans) climate change.  

That humans have caused this warming is an accepted fact among the wider scientific community. The consensus among 97% or more of publishing climate scientists is that warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.

The majority of leading scientific organisations across the world have issued public statements endorsing this position.   

Put simply, since the industrial age, human activities have released increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, methane and and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. These are what’s known as greenhouse gases (GHGs). 

The ‘greenhouse effect’ is the process by which some of the sun’s heat gets trapped from leaving the Earth’s atmosphere. The Earth’s natural greenhouse effect is critical for making the planet warm enough to support life.

But since the 1800s, humans have been burning more and more fossil fuels (like coal, oil, peat, gas) in order to power our industries, cities, transport, etc. 

Burning all of these releases large amounts of GHGs into the atmosphere. The result is that, over decades, more heat-trapping gases are released into the atmosphere, trapping more heat and warming the planet.

It’s not just fossil fuels, either. Changes in land use, the mass cutting down of forests to make way for human agriculture, the emissions from animals like cows and sheep, all these contribute to global warming.   

This warming then affects the climate and all life on Earth, with scientists, environmentalists and others warning of the impending catastrophe if global emissions aren’t reversed.

Who contributes the most?

The level of greenhouse gas emissions varies greatly from country to country, depending on population size and level of development.  

For most of the 20th century and up to 2015, the United States was the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. The US was surpassed by China in 2015 on a year-on-year basis. 

However, the United States is still responsible for significantly more cumulative emissions (meaning emissions built up over many years) than China. The largest emitters and amounts of carbon dioxide (the most common GHG) in 2017 is given below, with Ireland as comparison. 

20190822_CO2_Worldwide_Journal (1) Carbon emissions by country in 2017 including Ireland. Source: Statista

While the level of Ireland’s emissions seems miniscule in comparison to China or the US, on a per capita basis (meaning emissions by head of population), they are relatively high – some of the highest in Europe.

20190822_Greenhouse_Gas Source: Statista

“People always say, ‘what about China?’ and I say okay let’s take a province in China the same size as Ireland. Should they not do anything [about climate change] because they’re small?” asked John Gibbons, a spokesperson for An Táisce’s Climate Change Committee. 

“You can divide up the world in a thousand different ways. The aviation sector will tell you they can’t do anything because they’re small, but it’s all these wedges together that have delivered a crisis.

What we’re getting is every single wedge saying: ‘Well don’t look at us, look at the other guy.’

So what’s being done about it? 

With a few notable exceptions, administrations across the world accept the dangers posed by climate change and the need to act to reduce GHG emissions. However, the scale of commitment to carry out that action varies – especially in cases where cutting emissions could affect economic growth. 

International action – or at least, recognition of the problem – began about 30 years ago, in 1988 when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was first set up. 

This was followed by United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. This led to the first action aimed at stabilising worldwide GHG emissions. 

In 1997, Kyoto Protocol was adopted by close to 200 countries and was ratified in 2005. It was the first agreement which set internationally binding targets for countries to reduce GHG emissions. It was ratified by the majority of countries in the UN, with the exception of the US. 

China – as a developing nation – wasn’t required to commit to any reduction targets at the time. 

The Paris Agreement was reached in December 2015 by almost every nation in the world in order to address climate change. It was seen as a landmark accord, in which countries committed to legally binding targets to reduce their GHG emissions.

The goal of the agreement is to limit global warming to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels”, while “pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”. 

Last year, a report from the IPCC stated that urgent action needed to be taken to limit global heating to 1.5°C. Even half a degree more than that will increase the risk of floods, droughts and other extreme weather events. 

Currently, the temperature of the planet is just above 1°C higher when compared to pre-industrial times, and the higher the temperature goes the more destabilised the world’s climates become. 

Despite pledges and commitments, last year saw energy-related GHG emissions reach another historic high, with many countries’ national plans not meeting their Paris commitments.  

China is ramping up construction of coal-fired power plants in many areas, while US president Donald Trump – who has previously called climate change a “hoax” – said he wants to take the country out of the agreement altogether.  

Ireland’s place in all this 

As a member of the EU, Ireland has binding commitments to reduce GHG emissions by next year, 2030 and beyond. The country has a target of a 20% reduction of GHG emissions compared to 2005 levels by 2020, and a 30% reduction by 2030.  

The country also has yearly targets to meet at EU level. 

These targets only apply to certain sectors of society (like transport, agriculture, home heating), while big industry and energy generation is controlled at EU level (under a system called the Emissions Trading Scheme) and has separate targets. 

A recent report from the EPA found that Ireland was on track to miss its reduction targets by a significant margin. The report found that our emissions could even increase over the next 10 years, under the worse case scenario. 

If you split Ireland into different sectors, each one contributes to emissions in its own way. From driving cars to generating power and heat, rearing cattle to industry, each element of our lives plays its part in releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 

According to the EPA, which has a responsibility for measuring our emissions, Ireland’s total emissions in 2017 were 60.74 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2eq).

While this was a slight decrease on the previous year, it follows on from significant increases in 2016 and 2015. This means that in the last three years total emissions increased by 6.4%.

Agriculture was responsible for 33.3% of GHG emissions in 2017, by far the largest portion, mostly as a result of the cattle needed for beef and dairy production. This was followed by Transport (19.8%) and Energy Industries (19.3%).

20190822_Emissions_Sectors A breakdown of Ireland's GHG emissions b sector. Source: Statista

The country has been slow to act with regard to our international responsibilities on climate change. Last year, Ireland was rated as the worst performing EU country by the Climate Change Performance Index.    

In early 2018, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the country was a “laggard” in its efforts to tackle climate change, and needed to do more. Since then, there has been a renewed focus – both domestically and internationally – on the crisis, with growing public outcry over the direction in which the world is headed.

“Our house is on fire, I am here to say our house is on fire,” Swedish 16-year-old Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg told world leaders at Davos earlier this year.

According to the IPCC we are less than 12 years away from not being able to undo our mistakes. 

Last year, Thunberg started skipping school to sit in front of the Swedish parliament protesting against the lack of action on the climate action. Her protest went viral and kicked off a worldwide movement.

Direct action protests around climate inaction have ramped up in cities across the world. Tens of thousands of people joined the the Extinction Rebellion protests in England earlier this year, with hundreds arrested. 

In Ireland, protesters blocked O’Connell Bridge back in April, and have staged a number of demonstrations since then, with protesters committing to continue their action unless radical steps are taken by government to reduce the country’s emissions.

The Government’s plan 

It is in the context of this that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action published its final report in March, laying out the wide changes needed to improve Ireland’s environmental record. 

The Dáil also voted to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency in May, making Ireland the second country in the world to do so. Although there are no real requirements for the government to take action as a result.

Following this, the government published its Climate Action Plan in June, with Minister Richard Bruton saying that it set out “radical reforms” which would cut the country’s reliance on carbon.

“We have a short window of opportunity to act. We must act now and leave a better, healthier, more sustainable Ireland for future generations. This plan provides our way forward,” Bruton said at the launch. 

Targets include increasing renewable electricity to 70% and closing peat- and coal-fired power plants; ensuring 950,000 electric vehicles are on the road by 2030; upgrading the energy efficiency of hundreds of thousands of homes. 

While the plan was welcomed as ramping up Ireland’s response to climate change, many environmentalists stated that it did not go far enough, and that there were not enough concrete measures aimed at reducing emissions. 

“Simple answer is no – [the measures] won’t go far enough,” said Professor McMullin. 

“If we’d acted 20 or 30 years ago, much less radical action might have been possible.

But having delayed now for as long as we’ve delayed means much more severe, more radical action has to be contemplated.

McMullin and other environmentalists firmly state that the world is hurtling towards a catastrophe and that extreme actions need to be taken as soon as possible to arrest this. 

“Fossil fuel use is so deeply embedded in the lifestyles of industrial countries like Ireland, that rapidly getting off fossil fuel use is inevitably going to require very obvious and large scale disruption of our current ways of doing things,” he said. 

What we have in the current plan is incremental transition and we don’t have time for incremental transition. I wish we did… but I don’t think we do.

The future

The kind of large scale shifts that are needed to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels hugely affect different aspects of people’s everyday lives. Even with the current measures contained in the Climate Action Plan, in the two months since it was published the government has run into problems.  

In the Midlands, Bord na Móna workers are worried about their futures as peat-fired power plants are being shut down. Farmers are protesting against the price of beef, while clashing with environmentalists over the size of the national herd.

Meanwhile, the government and opposition are split on increasing a carbon tax, which would add a levy on fuels like diesel and petrol. 

Meanwhile, in recent weeks homeowners hoping to avail of a grant to help them retrofit their homes were left furious when it was suddenly announced that the programme had ran out of money. 

Issues like these are likely only to multiply over the coming years as emissions will have to be cut more and more to keep Ireland in line with its targets, which it is already missing.

The country will miss its 2020 emissions reduction targets, and will have to buy “carbon credits” from other countries to make up the shortfall, with costs likely to reach the tens of millions. As things stand, the country is on to track to miss its 2030 targets too.  

Aside from fines and international embarrassment, climate scientists warn that worldwide failure to act will mean an Earth that is hotter, where freak weather events are the norm, and where vasts part of the world are uninhabitable.  

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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