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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C
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Analysis The Canadian wildfires are a wakeup call for Ireland on our climate commitments

Seána Glennon writes from Toronto about the devastating wildfires and their impact on health, climate and policy.

AS WILDFIRE SEASON continues to rage across Canada, cities across the US are bracing themselves for another onslaught of heavy smoke this week.

Earlier this month, firefighters from around the world converged on Canada to help exhausted local crews battle the record-breaking wildfires across the country. A mere week after the official start of summer time, and already 13 times more land than average for this time of year – around 3.3 million hectares – has burned.

As over 120,000 people have been driven from their homes, smoke continues to billow over the US border; in the past month, the world witnessed extraordinary scenes of New York City under an eerie amber smog and experiencing, temporarily, a worse air quality than Delhi. Now, air quality is reported to be deteriorating in Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee, with Chicago reporting the worst air quality reading of any city in the world on Tuesday.

According to satellite images from NASA, the smoke has now crossed the Atlantic Ocean and is in the process of darkening skies across southwestern Europe. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre reports that currently, there are 490 fires burning, 255 of which have been deemed out of control.

Ireland’s carbon problem

Meanwhile in Ireland, as the country continues to experience record temperatures year on year, the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland notes a continuing rise in carbon emissions – the main contributor to global warming.

The government has pointed to a range of reasons for this, from the increase in transport and energy emissions following the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions to the repercussions of the war in Ukraine.

The reality, however, as spelt out by the Environmental Protection Agency this month, is that Ireland is on track to miss its 2030 climate targets by a significant margin unless urgent action across all sectors is taken. Even if the measures outlined in the national Climate Action Plan are fully implemented on time, the EPA projects that Ireland will only manage a 29% reduction in emissions by 2030; far short of the 51% target.

The local and global impact of the Canadian wildfires is just the latest alarm bell sounding as the climate disaster continues to unfold. Canada is not alone in experiencing out-of-control wildfires in recent years; the United Nations advises that wildfires around the globe are getting worse, with many countries too focused on fighting the fires when they occur, at the expense of planning to prevent outbreaks in the first place.

A warming planet

The climate crisis is exacerbating the problem; while wildfires can generally be attributed to human action or natural causes such as lightning, climbing global temperatures have led to an increase in the intensity of wildfires and a longer duration of the wildfire season. The spread of wildfire smoke is, furthermore, causing a global health crisis: a forthcoming study by Stanford researchers on the societal impact of the more frequent and severe wildfires in the US has found that 60% of the impact of smoke pollution is felt by those outside the states in which the fires are burning.

Smoke from the wildfires currently raging in Canada has already been detected thousands of miles away, in Europe, and is expected to sweep across Ireland and the UK this week.

Unsurprisingly, worsening wildfires – and climate change generally – disproportionately affect minority and poor communities. Those living in older and more crowded housing are less protected from wildfire smoke, and those working essential jobs are unable to work from home and avoid exposure. Studies show that racial and ethnic minorities are much more vulnerable to the effects of wildfires; yet as the wildfire seasons start earlier and increase in intensity, no one, not even the very wealthy, can escape the smoke.

Why is this an issue for Ireland? The Canadian wildfire smoke that has been detected over Europe this month is not expected to seriously impact air quality in the immediate term. In addition, it is easy to dismiss Ireland’s overall role in combatting climate change on a global scale. If the major carbon emitters like China, the US and India are not taking effective steps to dramatically cut emissions on an urgent basis, then what difference can a small country like Ireland make?

This is to underestimate, however, Ireland’s ability to influence on the world stage. For a small country, Ireland wields outsized diplomatic power globally, displayed in particular by the Taoiseach of the day’s standing invitation to Washington on St Patrick’s Day every year. The country won a coveted seat on the UN Security Council from 2020 to 2022, and Minister for Finance Pascal Donohue has recently been re-elected as president of the influential Eurogroup. The enduring strength of the US-Ireland relationship was highlighted by President Joe Biden’s high profile visit this year. While Ireland’s efforts to cut emissions may not directly contribute in a highly significant way to addressing the climate crisis on a global level, it is placed to call the big players – the US in particular – to account.

How can it do so credibly, if it is embarrassingly behind on its own climate commitments?

If the wildfires continue to burn with intensity over the summer months, furthermore, then the smoke may well begin to cause a problem in Ireland and across Europe. Wildfire smoke is toxic; air pollution is thought to cause in the region of 10 million deaths per year and can also cause and exacerbate a range of diseases, from respiratory and cardiac diseases to mental illness and miscarriage.

It is becoming harder and harder to conceive of the climate crisis as an issue that can be tackled by individual countries; this is not a reason for individual countries not to strive to meet their own targets, however.

If every country were to take the attitude that it alone is unable to solve the climate crisis and used this as an excuse to fail to act, then all efforts to date are doomed to fail and we will bear witness to an increasingly uninhabitable planet.

The recent apocalyptic images of the near-deserted streets of New York City under a toxic orange smog bring the realities of climate change and the increasing dangers of out-of-control wildfires home in a concrete way. Ireland should move urgently to realign its decarbonisation measures, not only to bring itself into compliance with its commitments but to ensure that it can be a credible voice to demand accountability on the world stage before it is too late.

Seána Glennon is a lawyer, PhD candidate and Chief Outreach Officer at UCD’s Centre for Constitutional Studies, currently a visiting scholar at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University, Toronto.


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