The subtle danger climate change poses to ‘highly vulnerable’ Ireland

Availability of energy, fresh water and medical care are ‘areas where the buffer against climate shocks is uncomfortably thin’

Although Ireland is at little risk of the 50-degree heatwaves or Category 5 hurricanes seen elsewhere in the world, the minimal danger posed by climate extremes belies how ill-prepared the country may be for increasingly challenging weather or for economic shocks that ripple from climate disasters overseas.

Researchers at the University of Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative recently scored more than 180 countries according to their vulnerability to climate change. While Ireland ranks among other wealthy nations, which — by virtue of having modern power grids, paved roads, and other basic infrastructure — are better shielded against disaster than much of the developing world, it’s falling well short of expectations.

When experts rated countries according to their level of prosperity, measuring the distance between their actual score and their expected score, Ireland ranked 176 out of 179. Danielle Wood, project director at the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative, compares the findings to the “check engine” light on a car: “It tells you that something’s wrong and you should be paying attention to it.”

The research highlighted several potential points of vulnerability across Ireland, including Dublin in particular where rapid population growth has put added pressure on critical infrastructure.

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Ageing water infrastructure

Rising temperatures are expected to bring a drop in total rainfall in Ireland, felt most acutely in the east during the warm months, according to Met Éireann, which says that summer dry spells could increase by as much as 40 per cent, even if emissions decline quickly. One way to guard against worsening drought is to gather more water during the wet months for use during the summer, but when Notre Dame rated countries according to their “dam capacity”, it found Ireland lacking.

About three-quarters of the country’s water supply comes from lakes, rivers, and streams, much of it collected in dam reservoirs, which as of 2019, held about 178 cubic meters of water per person, far less than the European average of more than 1,000 cubic meters per person, according to data from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

“We don’t really have that many big reservoirs,” says Conor Murphy, professor of geography at Maynooth University and a member of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) adaptation committee. Adding to the country’s water challenges are its ageing, leaky pipes, many of which date to the Victorian era. Irish Water estimates that 38 per cent of all treated water is lost through leakage. “Over many generations and governments, there’s been a lack of investment in critical infrastructure in the water sector,” he adds.

This summer, Irish Water banned the use of garden hoses in west Cork after water supplies were depleted by a long dry stretch. National hosepipe bans also came into effect in 2020 and in 2018, when water levels on the Poulaphouca reservoir in Co Wicklow dropped low enough to reveal the remnants of a lost village.

With climate change, such droughts will likely become more frequent, and the country is ill-prepared, says the CCAC. Ireland has yet to draft a national drought plan or establish a national drought warning system, “despite climate forecasts showing Ireland has amongst the strongest trends to greater precipitation deficits in summer”, the council noted in its latest review.

The doctor shortage

As temperatures rise, Ireland will also see more intense heatwaves, raising the risk of heat stress, and more extreme floods, which will fuel the spread of waterborne illnesses. These risks, among others, will test the healthcare system, which has been made more vulnerable by Ireland’s well-documented doctor shortage.

Data included in the Notre Dame report show the number of doctors in Ireland trails well behind the European average. The HSE is short 1,600 hospital consultants, according to the Irish Medical Organisation. As the population grows, Ireland will need to recruit a similar number of GPs by 2028 to keep up with rising demand, it predicts.

The CCAC has found the Covid pandemic has slowed progress on climate adaptation in the healthcare sector. And while it praised the formation of the Climate Change Oversight Group and the Climate Change Unit in the HSE, it found “limited evidence to demonstrate tangible progress” by these groups in readying for more severe weather.

“Very little progress has been made in preparing the health sector and preparing hospitals and staff for dealing with climate change,” says Darren Clarke, an environmental geographer at Dublin City University who researches climate adaptation. “And there’s no question it will need to respond,” he adds.

Dependence on imported energy

Ireland’s heavy reliance on foreign energy forms another point of vulnerability, the Notre Dame report found. Around two-thirds of Ireland’s energy comes from imports of oil, coal, and natural gas, leaving it prone to supply shocks, which could grow more common as increasingly severe weather disrupts international shipping and rising seas breech critical seaports.

The current energy crisis spurred on by the war in Ukraine highlights how turmoil abroad can drive up energy costs at home, Murphy says. “Climate change impacts in other countries can have knock-on effects around the world. Our exposure to that is under-considered.”

Though Ireland is not well-endowed with fossil fuels, it can guard against future energy shocks by building out solar and wind energy and by switching to electric cars powered by renewables, adds Clarke in a scenario where “we have more renewable energy potential than really anywhere else in Europe”.

The Government has set a target of 80 per cent renewable power by 2030 and is aiming for 945,000 electric vehicles on the road by that same year. But progress on building out clean energy has been slow. “It takes sometimes five, 10, 15 years from ideas through to planning, consultation, and implementation,” Clarke notes. “The challenge today has been our inability to scale up at the pace which is necessary.”

Dublin’s rapid growth

Over the past decade, the population of Dublin has jumped by about 10 per cent and by 2036 close to a third of the Irish population is expected to be living in the capital, according to the Central Statistics Office.

Rapid urbanisation puts greater stress on essential services, Wood says. Dublin, for instance, relies on water infrastructure built for a smaller population. Its recent growth, combined with its drier climate relative to the west, has left the city vulnerable to intensifying drought. To cope, Irish Water has put forward a controversial plan to redirect water from the Shannon River to serve a population that is increasingly concentrated in Dublin.

“That increased demand now has resulted in one of Europe’s major cities really being at the edge in terms of its ability to meet water demands,” Murphy says. “Even when you have a relatively short drought, that can result in serious water issues.”

A 2021 survey of leading climate scientists found that six in 10 expect the planet will warm by at least 3 degrees by the end of this century, blowing past the 1.5-degree goal set out in the Paris Agreement. More than eight in 10 believe the impact of warming will be catastrophic.

The growing threat from rising temperatures adds greater urgency to efforts to shore up access to water, healthcare, and energy in Ireland, Murphy believes. “That excess capacity to deal with surprises, to deal with extremes, that seems to be missing in an awful lot of our critical infrastructure systems.”

But adaptation remains low on the national policy agenda, according to the CCAC. While the impact of warming is becoming increasingly clear; “this is not matched by significant evidence of greater preparedness”, it said in its review.

“The general public is concerned about climate change. They’re willing to do things about climate change. But I do think there is this perception that it’s still something that’s out there, over there, in the future,” Murphy says.

“It’s not just far-off places, as we’ve told ourselves,” he says,” Yes, they are highly vulnerable, but we are as well.”