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Pandemic economic turmoil a taster of climate-change fight ahead

Lockdowns have left businesses worn down yet barely a dent has been made in emissions

Environmental authorities in Germany this week said the country has met its goal for a 40 per cent cut in carbon emissions between 1990 and 2020. With a drop of 8.7 per cent in its emissions last year, Germany’s cumulative reduction over the three decades was 40.8 per cent. It got in just under the wire.

The 2020 fall was the biggest single annual drop in German emissions over the 30-year period, due in part to major reductions in areas such as transport carbon output, which fell 11.4 per cent due to the pandemic. The German environmental authority, the UBA, suggested this week that about two-thirds of the reduction would have happened anyway despite the pandemic, due to years of policy changes and structural shimmies in the make up of its economy.

But this still suggests that Germany’s emissions fell by close to 3 per cent last year as a direct result of the coronavirus outbreak and the exhausting lockdowns that have become the main tool in Europe for combating outbreaks. Without such interventions, Germany would have easily missed its emissions targets. It took a suite of unplanned and socially-divisive stay-at-home orders, transport curbs and businesses closures to get it over the line.

That should serve as a warning for Ireland and other nations about the economic and social strife that may lie ahead as countries reckon with how to hit the European Union’s tough 2030 emissions targets. Ireland’s emissions last year fell by less than 6 per cent – Germany performed almost 50 per cent better. Just 6 per cent – and think of how miserable we all felt while doing it.



A study published this month in the scientific periodical Nature Climate Change concluded that emissions might have to fall by the equivalent of a global economic lockdown every two years for the next decade, in order to meet the goal of the Paris climate accord of limiting global temperatures to within 2 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels.

Major upheaval lies ahead, not that you would know it from the prevailing attitude of businesses and consumers

Lockdowns are said to have taken about 7 per cent, or 2.6 billion tonnes, of carbon out of the atmosphere last year. The researchers concluded that between 1 billion and 2 billion tonnes need to be removed each year for 10 years to avert a climate disaster.

Such stark predictions ought to make the blood of the State’s financial mandarins run cold. Major upheaval lies ahead, not that you would know it from the prevailing attitude of businesses and consumers, who don’t seem to realise the full extent of the change that is coming.

Associated pain

This change and its associated pain will not be distributed evenly, either, if our pandemic experiences are anything to go by. The anti-virus lockdowns of the last year have had startlingly little economic effect on the professional classes, who are mostly trundling along as before except for now they work from home, attending Zoom meetings in between laundry cycles.

Yet those working in retail, aviation, tourism and hospitality have seen their livelihoods devastated and have become, in effect, economic wards of the State. The same sectors that rely on personal consumption and discretionary travel are bound to be high on the list (alongside agriculture) of the parts of the economy that will be most adversely affected by the fight against climate change.

Coronavirus may be just a taster of what lies ahead. The measures required for Ireland to hit upcoming emissions targets are bound to be as far reaching as the measures needed to limit the pandemic. Implementation could get messy.

Marie Donnelly warned that agriculture, a major source of emissions, is directly in the firing line

The protests of recent weeks illustrate the extent of the social and political upheaval that has been caused by pandemic lockdowns. People rebel when their everyday life is forcibly constrained. Imagine how much they might rebel if they learn that aspects of their life may be changed and constrained forever.

Last week, Marie Donnelly, the new chairperson of the State's Climate Change Advisory Council, gave a speech at a British-Irish Chamber of Commerce event to discuss how to hit climate targets. She warned that agriculture, a major source of emissions, is directly in the firing line and there would be no escape for it from any reductions drive. That has been well flagged but will be no less divisive in rural communities when it happens.

‘Individual choices’

She also warned about transport emissions, stating that “individual choices” about how and when we make journeys are responsible for about one-third of all Irish transport carbon output. She hinted that these choices are low-hanging fruit when it comes to reining in the sector’s carbon output. That suggests that some of these choices could be made in future, not by individuals, but by the State on their behalf.

“The challenge we are going to face in Ireland is going to be very significant. Just to give headline figures: we are currently at about 60 million tonnes of emissions. By 2030, we will need to get to 30. The current action plan adopted in 2019 will save 16 of those,” said Donnelly.

“So we need another 14, which effectively means we will have to double our efforts regarding what we thought we were going to do in order to achieve our objective by 2030. It’s a steep mountain to climb.”

Latest targets

Ireland will have to introduce climate measures almost twice as effective as it had previously thought it would need to meet the Government’s latest targets. And it will have to do this while, at the same time, trying to restore economic growth to make up for the damage caused by the upheaval of the pandemic.

All of this will have to be achieved while the State is supposedly repairing the very sectors, such as tourism and travel, worst hit by the pandemic and which could be among the most affected by the fight against climate change.

Who would want to be the policymakers trying to square that circle?