Here are 12 reasons to be optimistic about climate action

The world can still tackle the environmental crisis – and Ireland can play its part

Cop26 is about to dive into tortuously difficult negotiations. Expectation will be immense and there will be a dark mood across the table; little to suggest a breakthrough on the climate crisis is realisable. Hard graft will need to be applied over the following fortnight to make a deal possible.

Initially, there will be talk of not enough commitments “to keep 1.5 degrees alive”; glaring carbon emissions gaps not being bridged by countries, and indications of big emitter countries clinging desperately to fossil fuel options and developing countries being left to address climate-driven extreme weather and sea-level rise on their own. Reluctance among short-termist politicians and vested interests in wealthy countries will be obvious.

The latest climate science – yet more record global temperatures and carbon emissions – will do little to lift spirits. For many outsiders all this will feed eco-anxiety. Their concerns are not unreasonable; we are facing an existential threat.

The scale of change requires facing up to the horrible truths of interlinked climate and biodiversity crises. The essential ingredient for big action then needs to be added; hope that is not masquerading as naivety. It is the antidote to fear and powerlessness. Are there grounds for realistic optimism?



The Cop process:

UN “conferences of the parties” may be imperfect and cumbersome in tackling climate change, yet sometimes they get big stuff done. Cop21 generated the 2015 Paris Agreement, a great monument to multilateralism that has proven to be a robust indicator of direction of travel needed. But we need to move beyond promises to action.

Solutions already exist:

If every solution existing today was rigorously applied, limiting to 1.5 degrees would be achieved – not easy, not without cost but doable. The mantra must be “every .1 of a degree matters – every action, by every person, can make a difference”.

Key goals are achievable:

Many of the best climate scientists believe keeping global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees this century, a critical target set out in the Paris accord is still achievable – though the pathway is narrowing. This means halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. The reward will be a liveable planet while avoiding dangerous climate tipping points.

Science delivers:

Modelling of future climate projections has made huge advances as has the ability to attribute extreme weather to excessive global warming. Stark as the recent UN intergovermental panel report was in confirming the climate crisis is here and now, its findings were broadly known for years. It, however, brought certainty on the role of human actions in destabilising our biosphere. So climate deniers were brushed aside, allowing scientists to apply greater focus on solutions.

Technology will play its part:

The mix of human ingenuity and transformative technology shows every indication of bridging us into a safer future. Thanks to innovations the price of wind and solar power dropped far more quickly than predicted. They are cheaper than coal-generated electricity. New batteries promise to “outdo and out-green lithium batteries” and solve the vexed intermittency problem when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. New energy-absorbing materials such as perovskites have the potential to outshine silicon in solar panels, while superconductors can send power rapidly from where it is generated to where it’s most needed with minimal wastage.

The end of fossil fuels: The worst carbon-polluting energy sources are being phased out; it's just a matter of when. The International Energy Agency insists current price rises and supply uncertainty should be the trigger for scale up of renewables to ensure security of supply and clean energy. Once the mouthpiece of Big Oil, the agency – of which Ireland is a member – is emphatic on the need to immediately end fossil fuel extraction, recognising it is by far the most effective way to turn off the emissions tap.

At the same time use of electricity will be ramped up. Electrification will be the great enabler, though it will be a demanding task. As Prof Andrew Keane of UCD Energy Institute explains: “Ireland has had significant success in the use of renewable energy in our electricity supply, however we have really struggled to decarbonise our heating and transport energy to date.

“The addition of electric vehicles and heat pump demands on our electricity system to help address this shortcoming will need to be supported by additional renewable generation, interconnection and strong national grid infrastructure. There is massive potential for offshore wind development in our coastal waters, which has the potential to decarbonise Ireland’s energy while also contributing to the energy needs of other countries, bringing economic benefit to Ireland.”

Politically active youth:

A politicised new generation is emerging from within the ranks of Generation Z (encompassing people under 25). They act with one voice in every pocket of the world demanding greater urgency. They know their climate science and where fingers of blame should be pointed – at fossil fuel industry, large multinationals and big emitting states. They have a deep sense of equity, recognising the need for a just transition while supporting climate-vulnerable states. They are building large networks of people who want to do good effectively.

If leadership and change doesn't come from traditional political parties, they will generate their own. There are Greta Thunbergs in most countries; articulate, radical and impatient for action.

Nature-based solutions:

We have abused nature unrelentingly and got to the point where a biodiversity crisis risks being equally as catastrophic as climate destabilisation. Yet nature is stunningly resilient and provides the means to play its part in cooling the world and helping countries to adapt better to extreme weather events. That is provided there is rigorous protection for vast areas of land and seas – and an unprecedented programme of restoration and reforestatation.

Big business is pivoting:

Giant corporations and multinational companies have finally recognised the writing on the wall and are ahead of states (and politicians) in pursuing verified decarbonisation. Yes there are greenwashing opportunists, but a great many are cutting their own emissions and carbon throughout their supply chains.


While our emissions continue to rise, Ireland is verifiably among the most climate-ambitious countries in the world. And there are areas where we are making headway. Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir of MaREI in University College Cork points to our 2018 report card: "We released nearly 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide. It would have been more than 50 million tonnes had it not been for successful policy measures." Wind energy avoided 4 million tonnes of CO2, building regulations changes avoided about 2 million tonnes and use of liquid biofuels avoided half a million tonnes. Areas where we are making a global contribution include:

Renewables on the grid:

Ireland has consistently achieved the highest levels of wind power onto “a synchronous power system” (ie national grid) globally. And we are building to a point where close to 100 per cent renewables will be accommodated. This will in time facilitate massive offshore wind development, with potential for Ireland to become an electricity exporter and a major base for green hydrogen fuel production.

Bog restoration:

Ireland peatlands not only have the potential to store carbon but also to drive biodiversity restoration through re-wetting boglands. Bord na Móna is leading the effort, which in time could to be of global significance in capturing carbon while enhancing nature. And progress is already evident as confirmed by Padraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust:

And progress is already evident as confirmed by Padraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust: “It has been encouraging to see the speed and scale of bog rewetting that has taken place this year. The fact that cranes returned to nest in Ireland this summer after a 300-year absence is a sign that nature is waiting for its chance, all it needs is space and time. It’s also amazing to see how many in the farming community have already reacted to the crisis by turning to regenerative techniques that are based upon soil health.”

Sustainable agriculture:

The Irish agrifood sector has been consistently among the most innovative and adaptable to change in the world. We are told our beef and dairy farming makes us among the most carbon-efficient food producers in the world, but that is no longer good enough. New standards and climate obligations demand a transformation of the sector that significantly reduces methane output. Science dictates our future agrifood output has to entail lower livestock numbers and a scaling up of plant-based production while enhancing the ability of land and soils to trap carbon.

That said, there is every reason agrifood industry including farmers with the right supports can ensure we become the world’s most sustainable food system.