Irish Times Column, July 6th, 2023

Making up for delayed emissions cuts after 2030 may become impossible, unless climate action is quickly ramped up.

The latest Climate Action Plan includes wide-ranging and ambitious measures aimed at reducing Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. However, the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent set of emissions projections reveals a significant gap between these measures and the pathway necessary to meet our global commitments on climate change.

According to the projections, even if the proposed measures are fully implemented, Ireland will only achieve a 29% cut in annual emissions by 2030. This falls well short of what is required, leading to an overshoot of our first and second legally-binding carbon budgets for this decade by 117 million tonnes of greenhouse gases.

An overshoot in a carbon budget period must be carried forward to the subsequent one. It may seem reasonable to avail of this option and make up for this gap after 2030, when cleaner technologies become cheaper and readily available. But the reality is that it will be virtually impossible to compensate for this gap. The projected overshoot would allow only 34 million tonnes of emissions – six months of the current rate – spread over the third carbon budget, a five-year period from 2031 to 2035. This would require infeasibly rapid emissions cuts, demanding an end to using oil, gas, and coal, and an extensive cut in livestock-based agriculture by 2033.

It is crucial to recognise that drastic cuts of this magnitude will not be cheaper or more feasible than the reductions required now, around 7 per cent each year, to meet the carbon budgets without overshoot. There is a major risk that unless corrective action is taken, no carbon budget will be achieved, and we will carry forward increasing overshoots for decades as the climate crisis deepens.

The urgency of the situation demands an immediate scale-up in climate action. A significant share of the population agrees: In a recent poll, 38 per cent of respondents say that the Government is moving “too slowly” on climate action. Energy systems modelling we conducted at UCC underscores the vanishingly narrow window to deliver carbon budgets. Unprecedented rollout of renewable and clean energy technologies, coupled with reductions in overall energy demand is required, a pathway that is technically feasible. The question is whether it is politically feasible.

The Climate Change Advisory Council emphasised in its advice to Government that delivering the carbon budget programme requires “rapid and sustained economic, social, and technological transformation across all sectors of the economy”, a message that echoes the scientific consensus.

In practice, this requires not just technological change, but systems change: doing things fundamentally differently. Examples include transforming the transport system to one that is less car-dependent, while electrifying new vehicles; diversifying agricultural production away from beef, dairy and sheep, and ways of using land and producing food and timber so that our soils and trees sequester and store, rather than emit, carbon, and enhance biodiversity.

However, there is significant resistance to these measures: the huge collective effort necessary to bring about these transformations has not been mobilised.

Change is hard, even if it is ultimately for good. Incumbent interests, the legacy of infrastructure, and inertia within institutions and people’s habits all play a role.

One of the reasons greenhouse gases are not being cut at the pace necessary has been the failure to effectively disincentivise polluting activities. Climate policies are heavily weighted towards “carrots”, promoting low-carbon solutions, like subsidising electric vehicles, rather than “sticks”, like reallocating road space to public transport and cycling.

Disincentivising polluting activities is necessary because low-carbon technologies will only cut greenhouse gas emissions if they replace high-carbon ones. Instead, they are meeting new demand growth in many cases.

For instance, although there has been encouraging growth in the electric vehicle market, the sale of fossil fuel powered cars is up again this year, and the trend towards SUV-type cars is continuing. Similarly, while the 2022 Census shows a moderate increase in the number of people cycling to work, this was far outpaced by the number of people driving. It is clear then why transport emissions in 2022 only fell by five per cent since 2018.

A similar trend is seen in the power sector, where growth in renewable electricity generation last year was nearly completely matched by demand from data centres, a trend that partially explains the rise in emissions from power generation.

This leaves us in a situation where we are running just to stand still.

A legitimate concern is that “sticks” can be unfair and place undue cost and hardship on some people. For this reason, equity, and enhancing social protection, must be core to climate action planning.