John FitzGerald: Long way to go in fight against climate change
National Mitigation Plan must tackle dependence on fossil fuels as matter of urgency
Protesters at a climate change protest: “Progress in tackling transport emissions has been limited.” File photograph: Cyril Byrne
The Paris Agreement on climate change, which was reached last December, has been ratified by Ireland, the European Union and almost 100 other countries and has now taken legal effect.
Its purpose is to ensure that by the middle of this century, we should have no additional negative impact on Earth’s climate system. Now the challenge is to ensure that all who have committed to the agreement actually implement it.
We need to take this agreement seriously to halt the advance of climate change. The fact that failure to comply may also result in EU financial penalties is a secondary issue.
The danger with such an agreement is that it is easy for all of those involved to promise to be good in 35 years’ time, knowing that few if any of those involved will be still in place in 2050 to answer for failure.
It is, therefore, essential that the Government plots out a credible pathway to meeting our 2050 target as part of the first National Mitigation Plan. A draft of this plan is to be published for consultation next month.
Future emissionsThe recovery in the economy is proving more robust than anyone expected. While this is good news in one dimension, it will add to Ireland’s emissions in the absence of new policies.
The National Mitigation Plan will need to take this into account, providing revised scenarios for future emissions and implementing even more rigorous policies. The statutory Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) published a report two weeks ago which made suggestions for inclusion in the plan.
Ireland will have to reduce the carbon-intensity of its economy and of everyday household behaviour. This will affect how we will generate electricity in the future.
In the first instance we need to move away from peat-fired generation (which we currently subsidise) at the earliest opportunity, as burning peat has a particularly negative impact on the climate. Some measures may be required to assist those individuals and communities who will be adversely affected to adapt to the new circumstances.
Coal-fired stations will be next in line to be phased out. After coal, the task will be to phase out the use of gas (and oil) in generating electricity to ensure that by 2050 electricity is produced in a fully sustainable manner in Ireland and across the EU.
A key policy instrument to achieve this will be raising the price of carbon to incentivise this change in Ireland and elsewhere. The CCAC has already argued for a revision to the EU emissions trading scheme to raise the price of carbon emissions from electricity generation. In addition to the carbon price, policies to enable renewable energy deployment are essential.
Sustainable alternativesThe Government’s plan will also need to spell out a path for the existing carbon tax on burning fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) to encourage energy consumers to transition to sustainable alternatives.
The reason why changes in such a tax should be announced in advance is that it will provide a key signal to investors and inventors: producing and implementing technologies that increase energy efficiency and that provide energy in a sustainable manner will be profitable in the future.
This is essential as it is only through implementing new technologies that we will reach our 2050 goal.
Individuals and companies respond in different ways to policy instruments. While higher carbon prices send a clear signal to which industry is likely to respond, other measures in the policy toolkit include regulations, standards, public education initiatives and information campaigns targeted at consumers.
Progress to date in tackling transport emissions has been very limited. Our strategy needs to go beyond price signals alone and embrace changes to our physical planning. Encouraging denser cities makes public transport more attractive for commuters.
Better building standards and better-insulated homes and offices also have an important part to play in reducing our carbon footprint. With a stock of more than two million homes, this means substantial upgrading of our existing stock of housing, as well as better standards for new builds.
Cleaner transport, greater reliance on public transport and more energy-efficient homes not only help the planet, but they would also realise health benefits through reduced air pollution.
Finally, the National Mitigation Plan must plot a path for agriculture and land use which ensures that it contributes to the overall global objective of halting climate change. For example, more trees can help trap carbon and reduce our net emissions to the atmosphere.