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Opinion The time of sitting tight on climate is over - we have to look up

Dr Emma Howard looks at the worrying climate events this year and outlines small changes we can make to how we live in response.

IN THE MOVIE ‘Don’t look up’ scientists discover that a comet is on course to collide with and destroy Earth, resulting in global extinction.

When the US president is told about the comet, her response is “OK, at this very moment, I say we sit tight and assess.” The movie is a satirical allegory for climate change, and in darker moments I can’t help but feel that inaction has us on the same self-destructive path: we are making small ineffective changes while the world burns.

The consequences of climate change have never been more visible, or frightening. Wildfires have raged across Europe this summer, and in Ireland, we have just experienced our wettest-ever July. With these extreme weather events becoming more common, the urgency of climate action has never been more visceral, yet many policymakers seem content to stick with the current inadequate plans, to ‘sit tight and assess’.

Incontrovertible evidence

Increasingly dire warnings from scientists are also becoming more frequent. Recently, a new study warned that the crucial Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) current could collapse as soon as 2025, while the Climate Change Advisory Council warned that Ireland will not meet its legally binding emissions reduction targets and that the pace of climate action is unacceptable.

It has undoubtedly passed the point where if you are not worried, you are not paying attention.

Worrying about climate change however can lead to climate anxiety, particularly in young people. Research has shown that this often results in individuals feeling helpless and powerless, negatively impacting daily life.

Given the magnitude of the crisis we are facing and the inertia of those in power, these feelings are unsurprising. Although policy and systemic changes are needed, individual actions are also required. Changing behaviour can make a positive impact on emissions while also alleviating the negative emotions that come with climate worry and anxiety.

Individual & government

It can be difficult however to know which actions to take. Climate change mitigation measures to date have not resulted in the required emissions reductions partly because they are primarily focused on convenient, low-impact actions. Policy changes and funding have targeted the ‘low hanging fruit’, changes that are uncontroversial or politically acceptable. Consequently, the understanding of the relative impacts of individual pro-environmental actions is poor.

In Ireland for example, most people underestimate the impact of eating less meat and overestimate the impact of eating locally produced foods and recycling.

The public debate focuses on the cost of transitioning to a lower carbon economy, and of course, considerable investment is required across all sectors. Individual climate mitigation measures can also be costly and often require significant outlays, even when grants are available. However, there are actions that individuals can take that are both high impact and cost saving or cost neutral.

If you want to take action to reduce your carbon footprint and help stop climate change, here are three things you can do that will make a big impact:

  • Eat less meat or, if you can, go vegan

What we eat, rather than where the food we eat comes from, has the biggest impact on the carbon footprint of our diet. For most foods, transport emissions are less than 10% of the total carbon footprint, and for beef for example, transport accounts for only 0.5%. In general, plant-based food emissions are 10 to 50 times lower than animal-based.

Given that global food production accounts for 35% of all carbon emissions, and that the vast majority of these emissions are from animal-based food production, eating less meat is a high-impact behavioural change.

Recent research from Oxford University found that a vegan diet results in 75% lower carbon emissions than diets where more than 100g of meat was eaten daily. For many meat eaters, turning vegan is too big a change to make, however, simply eating less meat is also very effective. Switching to a low meat diet, less than 50g a day, halves the carbon emissions, land, and water use of your diet.

  • Switch to cycling or walking, even if just for short journeys

Recent data published by the EPA found that transport emissions, the second biggest sector for emissions after agriculture, increased by 6% last year. Almost all of these emissions are from road use, and private car use accounts for more than half.

Our transport system has been designed to prioritise car use and consequently, there is structural car dependency in Ireland.

For many people, getting rid of their car is simply not an option. However, even just replacing short car journeys with walking or cycling would reduce transport emissions by about 75%. Given that in Ireland, more than half of journeys under 2km are made by car and in the Dublin metropolitan area 38% of people travel by car five or more days a week, there is huge scope to reduce emissions by driving less.

  • Fly less

When Eurostat reported that Ireland was one of only four EU countries to see an increase in emissions in the last quarter of 2022, our Taoiseach said he would not tell people to fly less. Proponents of the aviation industry argue that it accounts for a small percentage of global emissions, appx 3.5% of the harmful gases causing climate change.

Despite this, taking a flight has a huge impact on an individual’s carbon footprint. This anomaly is explained by the fact that about 80% of people in the world have never taken a flight.

Taking one return flight generates more emissions than citizens of many poorer countries around the world generate in an entire year. Stopping flying completely would have a big impact on people’s lives, especially when we live on an island and many of us have friends and family abroad. However, reducing how much we fly, even taking one less flight a year, would have a big impact on our carbon footprint.

It’s easy to look at all of these personal changes and think ‘what difference can I really make’ but if everyone makes a series of small changes it all adds up. These minor adjustments to how we live our lives now can at least mitigate against the more painful, irreversible changes coming down the line with the effects of climate change. If we don’t look up now, it will be too late.

Dr Emma Howard is an Economist and Lecturer at Technological University Dublin.


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