After decades of inaction on climate mitigation, there is now only a narrow window left for the world to meet the Paris Agreement target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.
In Ireland we have an outsized impact on global warming. if everyone in the world had the same per-capita emissions, the planet would already have warmed by a catastrophic 3°C.
Transformational change across society, and of people’s mindsets, is the only way to turn this around. The Climate Change Advisory Council’s deliberations on carbon budgets create a framework of delivery and accountability for every sector to achieve steep and immediate emissions cuts by setting an absolute ceiling on Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.
Emissions are required to fall by 51% in 2030 relative to 2018, with the speed of cuts ramping up after 2024. This “backloading” of savings does not mean that effort can be delayed. To have a chance of meeting these demanding budgets, decarbonisation measures must be implemented across every sector without delay.
However, given the transformative change required for transport, energy, land use and agriculture, many of these measures will take time to lead to the cuts in emissions required.
Measure to decarbonise the energy system will require full implementation of the 2019 Climate Action Plan, with fast deployment of renewable electricity, electric cars, and energy-efficient buildings. But technology and fuel swaps alone will not meet the scale of changes required by these carbon budgets.
Energy systems modelling undertaken in UCC shows that lower energy demands will make the targets far easier to achieve and are necessary if less ambitious targets are allocated to agriculture and land-use emissions, which together accounted for 42% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.
In transport, this requires reducing private car use in favour of walking, cycling and public transport, by investing in quality infrastructure and making towns and cities more people-centric, devoting less space to cars.
In industry, demand for emissions-intensive materials like cement can be reduced with efficiencies, focussing on renovating existing buildings rather than building new ones, and by switching to materials with a lower carbon footprint. Demand for energy in buildings can be lowered with better heating controls, ensuring that internal temperatures are not set too high and limiting the number and size of appliances and gadgets which need to be powered.
The cost of the transition will be substantial. It will cost between €2bn and €5bn each year over the next decade to transform the energy system away from reliance on fossil fuels. It is essential that this is not simply viewed as an expense and burden on society. It will be a hugely valuable investment. It will bring sustainable energy jobs, warmer homes, clean air, a better quality of life and huge fuel savings stretching into decades. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland estimates that Ireland spends €5 billion each year importing fossil fuels. This is money that should be spent on producing sustainable fuels and zero-carbon technologies in this country instead.
The opportunity for Irish industry to pivot towards sustainability is enormous. Analysis undertaken by McKinsey for the Climate Council suggests that Ireland is well-placed to capture parts of the global low-carbon value chain, for example through alternative proteins, bioeconomy products, green hydrogen, sustainable aviation fuels and heat pumps. Many of these opportunities present very valuable alternatives to agriculture than rearing livestock, but a credible plan for the sector to capture these opportunities is missing.
Leadership, vision, and imagination from policymakers and industry is needed, not just in agriculture but across all sectors of society.
That we accept the gravity of the problem; that policy and scientific processes are trustworthy and transparent; and that society comes together to act in the common good, even when it requires painful decisions.
Firstly, the public must understand how serious a threat climate change is, and that it’s no longer a problem for the future. Fires, floods, droughts, and ice melt this summer have given us a hint of catastrophes to come, and it is only a matter of time before we feel this closer to home. 2021, a year marked by heatwaves and forest fires, is likely to be one of the coolest years of the 21st century.
Young people understand this very clearly, and they feel afraid. It is the moral duty of the older generation to face this reality in solidarity with the youth, who will feel the worst impacts and shoulder the greatest effort in mitigating and adapting to climate change.
Secondly, the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated how policymakers can work with scientists closely and transparently, and the importance of honest communications with the public. Scientists should take a prominent role in spelling out both the causes of and the solutions to climate change, with the support of the media.
Thirdly, people will not come together to act on climate change unless the solutions are fair. When considering “who pays” for the transition, getting the distributional impact right will be key.