COP25: Ireland ‘likely to be identified as a climate laggard’

World leaders gather in Madrid next week for their annual bargaining on climate action

Students take part in a march demanding action on the environment in Brussels in February. File photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Students take part in a march demanding action on the environment in Brussels in February. File photograph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

 

This was a year when faith in humanity was restored by the ability of protesters across the globe to raise a collective voice amid political chaos, and to demand global action on the climate crisis.

Sometimes engaged citizens can shout loudest, as happened in September when millions of activists stood up to climate deniers and made the case for moving away from fossil fuels.

There was no greater articulation of a plea for more urgency in addressing an overheating world than young people leaving schools and protesting on Fridays, fired by the radicalism of Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg.

It got political results: national commitments to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050; many declarations of a climate emergency, the EU seeking that Europe becomes the first carbon-neutral continent.

The latest manifestations of a physical world under immense pressure surfaced repeatedly: the Earth’s lung (the Amazon) being ravaged by fire, Arctic ice sheets melting like never before, 40-degree summer heatwaves in the heart of Europe, autumn floods overwhelming Venice, droughts and unprecedented cyclones underlying the vulnerability of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Climate science’s latest findings and emission figures that don’t lie capped it all. Understandably in such circumstances, hope evaporates and feelings of eco-anxiety re-emerge.

World leaders gather in Madrid next week for COP25 (relocated to Spain after civil unrest in Chile), their annual bargaining on averting a climate catastrophe. The most recent alarm bells will be making them more anxious – while there is an ominous and widening gap between commitment and delivery on emission reductions.

We need to go to war on our emissions but cannot do that without restructuring and redistributing income

Reliable people are said to have a high “say/do” ratio on things they say they will do relative to the things they follow through on and do. The world has an appallingly low climate say/do ratio – which is forcing many activists to ask which bit of the climate science do those leaders not get?

Even if every country fulfils current pledges – and many including Ireland are not on track to do so – the latest UN emissions gap report predicts an intolerable 3.2 degree rise this century. Meanwhile, they have dithered on nailing down how to ensure full implementation of the 2015 Paris Agreement, the best mechanism to bring about action.

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg protesting outside parliament in 2018. File photograph: Hanna Franzen/TT News Agency/AFP/Getty Images
Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg protesting outside parliament in 2018. File photograph: Hanna Franzen/TT News Agency/AFP/Getty Images

Climate activist and Maynooth University academic Dr Lorna Gold is well placed to assess the latest science and growing climate inequality, and to determine what needs to happen, especially in the context of a possible green new deal in Ireland.

Such a deal harks back to the US response to the great depression of the 1930s and to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the second World War, but Gold prefers to focus on what happened during that war, when governments suspended normality and reorientated society under a unified objective.

It may be an unfortunate analogy but war has to be declared on emissions. Climate change can led to the breakdown of society, she notes, but equally it can lead to the unifying of human action.

War on emissions is often mistakenly regarded as a war on economic development and on the freedom to dream of a better future, says Gold. “That is a very comfortable middle-class viewpoint.”

Ten per cent of the richest and most powerful economies are responsible for 50 per cent of emissions and for exporting the notion of private wealth and luxury. “That 10 per cent haven’t yet experienced the crushing effects of climate change” and associated poverty so evident in developing countries.

“We need to go to war on our emissions but cannot do that without restructuring and redistributing income,” Gold says. “We are facing two competing logics leading us in different directions – the logic of growth, of extraction, of profit – and there’s a logic of sufficiency, of conservation. But these two logics are now conflicting increasingly in everyday life.”

In some countries emissions may have peaked but the global trend is upwards. Timelines are critical, she stresses, yet there is little indication of global shift.

She welcomes signs of change in thinking, however, such as “that hothouse of radicals, the Financial Times, calling for a questioning of that obsession with growth” and countries, such as Norway, adopting the doughnut economy model. Also known as “the moral economy”, this is a sustainable model of economics aiming to remain within climate limits while ensuring people’s needs are met.

Ireland is not shifting its emissions trajectory downwards “even with the great list of [recent] policy changes”. Major sectoral changes are needed, especially in agriculture and transport. Communities are “remaking the logic of consumption ... Officialdom, the policy sphere, needs to catch up with the immensity and urgency of this challenge”.

Key actions to tilt the curve, Gold suggests, include adopting the doughnut model in a national policy framework to compel interdisciplinary thinking; putting an overall “zero emissions” objective into law, no new investment in fossil fuels, and broadening the expertise and diversity of the Climate Change Advisory Council.

She welcomes the Youth Assembly on Climate call for corporation tax tied into emissions reductions, and advocates VAT on luxury items, a frequent flyer tax and a financial transaction tax to fund public good.

And all that is not enough to get where we need to be and infused with sufficient urgency. There is a huge task needed in capturing people’s imagination, in winning hearts and minds. This communications exercise has to be integrated into education and workplaces.

No guarantee

It has been a year of substantial gains on the Irish political front, according to Friends of the Earth director Oisín Coghlan, with the all-party committee on climate action playing a pivotal role, notably on climate governance, introducing carbon budgets and establishing a powerful standing committee on climate action. But there is a grave risk it will be undone if reinforcing legislation is not in place before the general election.

“The Climate Action Plan is only a political initiative – it is not yet on a statutory footing. There is no guarantee it outlives the Minister [Richard Bruton] and Government that initiated and adopted it. We risk a significant hiatus as the next government and new ministers find their feet. There is no guarantee the next government will prioritise, or even support, a standing committee.”

The only guarantee is a decision by way of amendment to Standing Orders (the rules of the Oireachtas) to set up the committee, Coghlan says. It will help ensure the 2030 National Energy and Climate Plan and the 2050 Long-Term Strategy, which have to be sent to Brussels in weeks, are robust.

If the current committee oversees adoption of a strong National Energy and Climate Plan and Long-Term Strategy by the end of January, if the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill is passed before Easter and if the standing committee is established, “it will have successfully translated its blueprint for adequate climate action into the actual laying of foundations with strong cornerstones”, Coghlan says.

Even more challenging

Ireland’s difficulties, however, are about to become even more challenging, warns climatologist Prof John Sweeney. UN climate scientists last year indicated that to avoid warming of 1.5 degrees, a global emission reduction of about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030 is required, reaching net zero around 2050.

“Recent work by Irish scientists based on equity and the remaining carbon budget suggest that Ireland will have used its fair share of the remaining global carbon budget within five years and will enter into ‘carbon debt’ to the rest of the world within the next five to 10 years.”

The Paris Agreement targets coming into force on January 1st ratchets up things considerably, adds Sweeney, as it demands regular increasing of ambition. What’s more, the new European Commission is set to push for reductions of “at least 55 per cent by 2030”. All indications are this will be a central element of the EU’s green new deal.

In Sweeney’s view, Ireland is not in that higher ambition zone though we purport to want to be a global leader in climate action. At COP24, the UN climate meeting in 2018, 27 countries resolved to step up ambition by 2020 – “Ireland refused to sign”.

More recently, eight member states wrote to the commission urging an increase in the EU’s 2030 target from 40 to 55 per cent. “The signatories did not include Ireland”.

Ireland has indicated willingness to embrace greater ambition but has not specified a revised target. Sweeney says Irish foot-dragging is evident on many fronts; it has not distinguished itself as generous to the Green Climate Fund, which helps those worse affected by climate disruption.

“The five years since the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015 have largely been wasted and [have] not delivered on the intentions for increased efforts prior to 2020. This has been partly as a result of political regime changes in key large emitting countries.”

The EU as a whole will achieve its 20 per cent reduction target for 2020. “Ireland is currently projected to achieve 5-6 per cent reduction and has exceeded its annual binding limits since 2016. It is likely to be identified again as a climate laggard at COP25.”

CLIMATE PROGRESS IN 2019

1. Public awareness on need for urgent climate action is fired up by young climate activists. The radical message of Greta Thunberg out-guns environmental cynicism.

2. All-party consensus in Oireachtas generates landmark climate action committee report.

3. Electoral “green wave” across Europe forces political parties to substantiate their climate policies.

4. Declaration by more than 60 countries of a “net-zero emissions by 2050” target.

5. European Investment Bank says it will end financing of fossil fuel energy projects, including gas, by the end of 2021.

URGENCY INDICATORS IN 2019

1. Concentration of climate-heating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere hits a record high – a level not seen since at least 3 million years ago.

2. Action on “the climate emergency” to date is having no effect in the atmosphere.

3. Accelerating climate shocks, land abuses and over-exploitation of water resources are undermining humanity’s ability to feed itself, says the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change.

4. Life-support systems that nature provides – an intertwined web sustaining humans, plants and animals – are at risk of unravelling in decades, says the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

5. In a warming world there still can be extreme cold – the 2019 polar vortex that hit north America is the latest manifestation.

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