Within three years Ireland has moved from "self-confessed climate laggard" to global leader but faces into having to make its agriculture compliant with the Paris Agreement, according to Laurence Tubiana, a key architect of the landmark pact.
Irish food was justifiably world famous yet the transition to a food system compatible with the Paris Agreement “will be a massive undertaking” for a small, open, export-driven economy, she added.
Speaking at a conference on "climate and community" jointly hosted by Institute of International and European Affairs and the French Embassy in Ireland, the director of the European Climate Foundation stressed she had no doubt Ireland could also be a global leader in addressing agricultural emissions, while encouraging others to purse this course, including France.
Ireland had endorsed the European green deal with matching commitments, she noted, and supported multilateral efforts to address the climate crisis. As a small country it had a role to play because “a club of major countries will not solve the problem”.
The Climate Bill was “an impressive model” for others to follow, underpinned by strong governance and independent oversight, Ms Tubiana said, while the level of renewable electricity being accommodated on the national grid, the ending of peat extraction and fossil fuel divestment meant its global leader status was justified.
This year was “a critical moment”, she said, as the COP26 gathering had to put the Paris Agreement on a firmer footing as it “is the central pillar to our collective fight against climate change” – but many countries had yet to indicate how they will step up ambition with plans for 2030.
Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan admitted "we are not leaders yet in actual delivery – but that will come". Decarbonising Ireland would only work if the outcome meant "a better country, a better economy, a better society" committed to restoring nature, he said.
Decarbonising the energy system would happen, he said, provided there was grid capacity with good interconnection with the UK and mainland Europe to ensure balancing of variable supply and variable demand – and trust between countries on sharing power and "providing [energy] security for one another".
There was particular difficulty, however, with 35 per cent of Ireland emissions coming from agriculture where most food products were exported, he added. The key to this was increasing incomes for farmers in tandem with reducing emissions and providing proper payment for their environmental services that are recognised within the economic system.
New rules and regulations on fossil fuel methane and biogenic methane generated in farming were required, Mr Ryan suggested. “This has to be done at international and UN level,” he said, through a protocol that prices in methane and yet supports family farms, especially those engaged in pastoral, less-intensive farming.
If this also supported "climate-resilient adaptation" in global agriculture, by helping developing countries – particularly in Africa – it would ensure better security and less climate-driven migration. This would require intensive diplomatic effort and was at an early stage, he said.
Chair of The Elders Mary Robinson underlined the need for frontline voices from climate-vulnerable countries to be heard, and for communities to embrace "a bottom-up approach; to own it" in their response.
This was critical to the Paris Agreement adopting the more demanding 1.5-degree target, but she feared that because of “Covid inequalities” many of those voices would not be allowed attend COP26.
Communities acting together would help overcome the “false rift” between environmentalists and farmers, Mrs Robinson believed. Farmers were being asked to do a lot, but they had always embraced protection of biodiversity because they realised its benefits, she said.
An Post chief executive David McRedmond told the conference that to help businesses to achieve sustainability, governments needed to do more than set targets, by introducing not only environmental standards but also robust employment standards.
“The gig economy is not sustainable,” he added, “It exploits regulatory loopholes for ultra-cheap labour and relies on the rest of society to fund pensions, welfare etc. A good app is not an excuse for lousy labour practices.”