Climate conference to highlight challenge of turning pledges into action

Cliff Taylor: There will be opportunities here, but also really difficult political trade-offs

Agriculture, responsible for a third of emissions, will be a key focus with varying signs from Government on whether a freezing or reduction in the size of the national herd will be needed. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Agriculture, responsible for a third of emissions, will be a key focus with varying signs from Government on whether a freezing or reduction in the size of the national herd will be needed. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

Will this be the year when the Irish public and business and Government system finally start to confront the massive environmental transition that lies ahead?

Housing is an area that has come back into the spotlight after the all-encompassing impact of the pandemic. Climate action will surely follow soon and the realisation that the pace of change here needs to accelerate very significantly in light of our climate targets.

There will be opportunities here, but also really difficult political trade-offs. The process of clarifying these was set in motion in March by the publication of the Climate Action Bill. It puts in place structures for legally binding carbon budgets – and action plans to meet targets, including a 51 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 and a move to net zero emissions by 2050. How to get there is now the question.

The Dublin Climate Dialogues Conference, kicking off on Wednesday, will highlight the challenge of turning commitments into action ahead of the major COP26 Summit in Glasgow in November, which is designed to build on the commitments of the Paris Agreement.

One of the key messages will be the need to move faster to ensure that the targets set are actually met and to avoid the potentially catastrophic costs of slow progress.

The concept of an exponential growth in risk – much discussed during the pandemic – will feature, as scientific experts discuss the dangers of going beyond the expected 1.5 degree limit in global warming (above pre-industrial levels) set as a goal in the Paris accord. This risk frames the key economic decisions which lie ahead.

Emissions

For Ireland, the process of setting a carbon budget in the autumn for the next five years, and then setting sectoral targets, will push the trade-offs into the open. Agriculture, responsible for a third of emissions, will be a key focus with varying signs from Government on whether a freezing or reduction in the size of the national herd will be needed – along with other sectoral measures. There will be a political fight about what needs to be achieved here and how.

Transport will also be a key focus as another significant source of emissions. A rapid uptake of electric vehicles would seem essential to meet climate targets. There will be a “carrot” here in terms of encouraging people to adopt, but also likely the need for some “stick”.

Will we see congestion charges for driving into the city centre? Higher tax on diesel? A hike in taxes on petrol and diesel cars?

Meanwhile, a new report from the International Energy Agency says that new fossil fuel projects should not be brought on stream.

One thing is clear. Our current trajectory will not put us on track to meet the required changes. There are big opportunities here – for new investment, technologies and sources of employment and also for planning more sustainable lifestyles. In turn this raises big questions about policy in areas from housing to public transport and beyond.

The challenge is to direct State resources and private investment to meet these needs, not only in Ireland but across the world. And to adapt to a world where carbon border taxes – levies on trade requiring higher emissions – may become commonplace.

Traditional fossil fuel producers and investments in other sectors who do not adjust to the climate agenda run the risk of owning “stranded assets”, whose value collapses. Investors are demanding that companies adapt to avoid this obsolescence – and also key climate risks.

The message from the Dublin Climate Dialogues to policy makers ahead of COPS26 is likely to be that commitments are fine, but action is what is needed. It is a message the host Government will know resonates in Ireland too.

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