Ireland may be fortunate as it can avoid many of the extremes of climate change already happening elsewhere on the planet and more likely in the future, but that should not be cause for complacency.
The country is experiencing heating unseen in the past 100,000 years or more — 17 of the 20 warmest years in Ireland’s history have occurred since 1990. And it brings the risk of radically changing our climate later this century, making it unrecognisable to the relatively benign one we have today.
There can be no sugar-coating the findings of 23 Irish climate and energy experts, who have drawn up Ireland’s Climate Change Assessment (ICCA). It looks at where the country stands in the face of a worsening crisis that is so evident in recent storms and floods, which were exacerbated by global warming.
It is frank on knowledge gaps; unclear paths to the Holy Grail of climate neutrality; and weak implementation of Government policy on the critical fronts of reducing emissions and adapting for inevitable negative changes.
But it’s far from being a doom-laden document. It sets out considerable benefits and opportunities from collective action; not just less nasty weather but improved economic development prospects, less air pollution and stopping nature loss.
It focuses on solutions, explaining what climate cliches such as “societal transformation” and “just transition” really mean for different key players and provides tools that can help achieve such outcomes.
The big “if” is providing there are rapid transformative actions across every sector of the economy that are reinforced by societal buy-in.
“The future climate is in our collective hands,” it says.
Halting warming globally, and in Ireland, will require rapidly reaching at least net-zero carbon dioxide and substantially cutting other greenhouse gas emissions. Every action matters as with every additional increment of warming, the impact on Ireland will increase substantially.
Achieving net-zero emissions, preferably before 2050, should be our North Star. Put simply, that means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove or store. This is critical to stabilising our climate. For Ireland, it offers the prospect of reducing temperature rise and intensive rainfall relatively quickly.
The analysis was commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency and conducted by academics and representatives of government departments and State agencies, a who’s who of Irish climate science. It is modelled on the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change approach, where leading climate scientists assess progress and likely scenarios. The ICCA localises its global assessments. Essentially, it says this is hard scientific evidence by evaluating more than 2,600 research papers applying to Ireland.
Its four volumes encompass:
- What the science says globally and how it applies to Ireland? In short, we are warming in line with global patterns, which is no cause for comfort;
- How to cut emissions and achieve a climate-neutral Ireland? It notes big gaps where ways forward are unclear, especially in terms of agriculture and land use;
- What is required to adapt for inevitable impacts especially increased flooding and more intense storms? It says adaptation planning is patchy with major cities vulnerable to flooding, storm surge and sea-level rise;
- How to achieve “a climate-neutral, climate resilient, and sustainable Ireland”? This looks at realising benefits, opportunities and synergies if the country moves quickly.
There are particularly worrying findings, such as that adaptation is “too slow and fragmented”. We are not adequately prepared for storms, floods and droughts likely coming around the corner. Ireland’s energy system is heavily dependent on fossil fuels when a “net-zero” power supply system is critical to other sectors decarbonising through electrification.
There are well-established “no-regret options” that need to happen now, which can get us most of the way to net zero CO2 emissions, it finds.
Beyond that, there are “future energy choices” relating to the scale and magnitude of technologies to help get us all the way. No-regret options include demand reduction (through energy efficiency and reduced consumption), electrification (electric vehicles and heat pumps), deployment of market-ready renewables (wind energy and solar) and low-carbon heating options (district heating), while future choices include hydrogen, carbon capture and storage, nuclear energy and electro fuels.
Renewables can increasingly provide our future energy needs but will need to be complemented with CO2 removals — expensive and unproven — to achieve a net-zero energy system in hard-to-abate sectors.
The elephant in the room, however, is the political and public disconnect between understanding climate science and taking appropriate action. The Irish public demonstrates a strong understanding of and support for climate action, yet there is a gap between the desire for action and realising change, it finds.
The Irish news media is a primary source of information for people to learn about climate change “but is struggling to cover climate change to the extent that would fulfil its traditional roles of informing the public, acting as a watchdog, and holding authorities to account”, it concludes.
It evaluates how to catalyse change by overcoming inertia and motivating individuals and organisations to act. “The collective action of individuals is one of the more effective ways for society to change policy and can enable the required systems transformations.”
The ICCA underlines rewards that will come from rapid and sustained action while building on progress in train. “The potential for a faster, wider and deeper transformation offers the opportunity to enable a sustainable and resilient future, for a prosperous Ireland in a changing world,” it says.
The Government claims its climate action plan, out for public consultation, is among the most ambitious in the world. The ICCA provides a timely mechanism to test that view, whereby its findings and projections should be cross-checked against this plan to ensure it is sufficiently robust and transformative. Evaluation of both documents suggests the answer to that question is in the negative.
There is much to be done before the Cabinet signs off on its blueprint to counter an inevitably turbulent climate coming to our doorstep.