Ireland has “failed spectacularly” in its response to the challenges posed by climate change over the last 15 years, the Citizens’ Assembly has been told.
The assembly, which is considering how the State can become a leader in tackling climate change, heard that failing to adequately respond to global warming could soon end up costing Ireland millions, and potentially billions, in fines.
"Ireland has failed spectacularly on climate change over the past 15 years," said researcher Joseph Curtin of UCC and the Institute of International and European Affairs. "It has not stepped up to the plate. Let's be realistic; start by doing our fair share, then we can aspire to leadership."
Mr Curtin said Ireland was not on target to meet any of its targets “under EU and UN processes” but that most countries were doing their bit when it came to reducing carbon emissions and adopting renewable energy sources.
Missing these legally binding targets would result in fines of hundreds of millions of euro by 2020, and billions of euro by 2030, he said, “which means less money for roads and hospitals”.
Faster than anticipated
There was a risk that Irish emissions could increase faster than anticipated because of economic growth and dairy farming, which was expanding at a much faster rate than projected, Mr Curtin added.
He said there was a need to be honest about trade-offs needed to successfully face climate change.
There would be job losses in areas such as peat harvesting, the coal industry, marginal beef farming and in the oil and gas sector, he said.
“There will be pain. That is why politicians are taking the path of least resistance,” Mr Curtin said.
However, there would be opportunities in retrofitting buildings to make them more efficient, in the renewable energy sector, in “citizen energy” initiatives, climate-smart agriculture and power grid development.
There was a new narrative of climate opportunities emerging, especially for rural Ireland, though the negatives of climate change continued to dominate discourse, making it difficult for the Government to address the issue.
Mr Curtin said a new form of “climate denial” was emerging in some mature democracies, such as the US, where a false case was being made to abandon mitigation efforts to counter temperature rise in favour of “let’s just adapt”.
To suggest Ireland was too small to make a difference was a myth, he added, citing Denmark and Sweden – countries which developed new technology that has had a profound impact on cutting carbon emissions.
Dr Conor Murphy, a climate scientist at Maynooth University, said the main threats to Ireland were from extreme weather, including flooding and more extreme storms, on top of natural variability in the weather.
He detailed evidence of sea level increases and temperature rises linked to human activity. If the Earth sees a 2 degree rise in coming years, one-in-100 year flooding events are likely to increase in magnitude by 30 per cent.
A 0.8 metre rise in sea level would impact on major Irish cities and towns, most of which are near the coast.
The hottest summer in Ireland over the past 100 years was in 1995, but the chances of a summer that warm occurring again had increased dramatically over the past 20 years, Dr Murphy added. The chances of an extremely wet winter had also increased significantly.
EPA director-general Laura Burke told the assembly – a selection of 99 citizens who have been asked to consider issues such as the Eighth Amendment and how to respond to Ireland's ageing population – that tackling climate change was the issue of most environmental importance to Ireland.
She said economic growth continues to be linked to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity, and the best case scenario was that Ireland’s emissions would be 7 per cent higher in 2035.
“We are going in the wrong direction,” she added.
This was due mainly to a large growth in transport emissions. She said decarbonisation of the public transport fleet was critical because the technology to do so was available, and it could be a leader prompting others including private industry to respond by becoming “fossil fuel-free”.
Peat used as a fuel and in power generation represents “a triple negative”, she said, as it produces a poor fuel, releases CO2 and diminishes Ireland’s best way to store carbon in the landscape.
Asked about emissions in agriculture, she said a smart farming initiative was enabling farmers to take action, save money, protect the environment and adopt a better approach to climate change. This was delivering a €8,000 return to the average Irish farm.