Irish Times Column, November 6th, 2023

A riddle: Why is Ireland considered a laggard in climate action, despite enacting some of the most progressive climate legislation in the world?

The list of achievements is impressive.

Ireland’s strategic investment fund was the first in the world to divest from fossil fuels. This decision had global ripples as the market value of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the United States fell by 14 billion euros in the three-day window around the announcement.

Ireland also joins a handful of countries that have banned exploration for fossil fuels, a bold move, but a necessary one if the world is to limit global warming. The decision by the United Kingdom to issue more than 100 new oil and gas licences this summer was heavily criticised: if countries are to meet decarbonisation commitments, no new oil or gas exploration is required.

Policies relating to energy supply also show strong climate leadership. Ireland’s electricity system integrates some of the highest shares of renewables in the world – a remarkable feat for a relatively small and isolated grid – and the plan is to double the share by 2030. EirGrid, the state-owned grid operator, is recognised globally as being at the vanguard of decarbonising power systems.

Finally, planning permission was recently refused for the construction of a commercial liquified natural gas (LNG) terminal on the Shannon estuary, as it is contrary to Government policy.

These are four examples of genuinely progressive, laudable climate policies.

One would think from this list of achievements that Ireland would rank very highly in climate action – but is ranked 21st out of 27 European Union countries in the Climate Change Performance Index.

So back to my riddle: why, despite these examples of leadership, are Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions stubbornly high?

My view is that climate policies are not addressing the root causes of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Ireland’s impact on the climate does not arise from domestic fossil fuel production, but from emissions-intensive consumption practices and enterprises that are deeply embedded in national economic systems, land use patterns, housing and infrastructure: it is extremely challenging and disruptive to change these indirect drivers of climate change.

All the examples I outlined above relate to the supply of energy, rather than demand. They also did not challenge any powerful domestic industry or require people to change their day-to-day lives. Perhaps this is why they were successfully implemented. But it also explains why they have not been effective in cutting emissions.

For example, in the switch towards renewable electricity, households have not had to change their habits or make any investments. At the same time, no industry has been disrupted in the State’s efforts to cut emissions, apart from peat.

However, this will soon end as climate action has to quickly step up several gears.

The 2021 Climate Act has legislated for strict limits on greenhouse gas emissions through a framework of carbon budgets, which “provide for a level of decarbonisation that is extremely ambitious by international standards” according to Dr. Diarmuid Torney of DCU. “Ambitious” here does not necessarily refer to a target for particularly low greenhouse gas emissions in 2030, but instead relates to the speed of decarbonisation necessary to bring emissions in line with necessary global efforts. Ireland is starting late, so must decarbonise faster than others to catch up.

Deeply transformative policy measures are necessary to deliver this pace of decarbonisation. Technology substitution, like electrifying cars, is urgently necessary, but not sufficient: to meet carbon budgets, new policies will require many individuals to change their daily practices, like how they move around cities, and will put pressure on high emitting industries, like livestock, aviation, and cement production. A shift in land use will also be necessary, both in cities (where parking spaces and traffic lanes are to be removed) and in the countryside (where more trees, space for nature and rewetting drained soils are needed).

The Climate Action Plan presents a detailed roadmap, but still falls short of identifying enough measures to cut emissions, and we are still lacking a Long-Term Strategy for full decarbonisation.

While climate action is a huge growth opportunity for clean industries, it cannot be escaped that the speed and scale of change necessary will be disruptive for other sectors. This disruption can be mitigated by preparing and re-training workers in these industries who will be impacted – the “just transition”. These transformative measures may be disruptive, but they can also help achieve wider societal objectives that technology substitution alone does not.

It falls outside of my expertise to draw parallels from history to illustrate the kind of political leadership and societal and industrial mobilisation necessary to successfully deliver this scale of transformative change: The Northern Ireland Peace Process? The Apollo Missions? The smoking ban? Whatever the analogy, we need urgent action: climate-fuelled disasters are mounting, and will keep escalating until greenhouse gas emissions are ended.