Laughing all the way to the apocalypse: Ireland’s climate inaction

Kevin O'Sulivan on the climate policies we don't have and the ones we should have

Without a co-ordinated global response, unprecedented in history, in as little as 12 years "several hundred million" lives will be immediately threatened by a warming world. The science behind this week's report from the world's leading climatologists, working under the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is clear: small temperature changes can have far-reaching effects on our ability to survive on Earth.

Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels requires rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes; the type of transformation governments have shown little inclination for so far.

The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change is the established mechanism for that kind of global response, but no country is achieving the decarbonisation rate to limit warming to 2 degrees, according to the latest PwC low carbon index.

If the world continues to warm at its current rate, today’s toddlers are likely to experience the consequences by the time they get to secondary school. They deserve an apology from those in charge now – arguably the last generation to be able to intervene and prevent catastrophic climate change.


Climatologist Prof John Sweeney outlined the consequences of failing to contain global temperature increases: "While this landmark report confirms that avoiding a global temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees represents an enormous challenge, the failure to face up to the challenge will mean the loss of many low-lying island cultures and the displacement of many millions of people in places where they have not contributed significantly to climate change."

Major extinctions of plants and animals will accelerate and weather-related hazards will increase in frequency almost everywhere. "For Ireland, overshooting 1.5 degrees would accentuate our emerging problems of climate extremes and damage the economic prospects of our current young people. The report confirms that, only by undertaking radical steps today to decarbonise our societies, can we leave a legacy of a sustainable world for the next generation."

For those campaigning for greater ambition by governments on climate change, a court decision in the Netherlands this week eased profound upset at the IPCC findings and genuine shock at the Government's failure to increase carbon tax.

The Hague Court of Appeal upheld the historic victory of the Urgenda Foundation and 886 Dutch citizens in their climate case against their government. It agreed with a 2015 decision, which found that the government's failure to sufficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions breached its duty of care to Dutch citizens. A raft of similar cases are in train around the world.

Sadhbh O’Neill, spokeswoman for Climate Case Ireland, which has brought a case against the Government over its “inadequate national climate mitigation plan”, welcomes the decision.

“This finding of a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights sets a direct precedent for cases like ours to succeed. We know how urgent the issue is, and the danger we all face. The IPCC made this very clear in its 1.5 degree report, and the Dutch appeal court recognised ‘the serious risk that the current generation of citizens will be confronted with loss of life and/or a disruption of family life’.”

She adds: “Unfortunately, our own Government continues to ignore this imminent, life-threatening problem, unable even to agree a modest increase in carbon tax. The political process has failed us all, so we have turned to the courts.

“The Dutch case has proven that governments have a legal duty to protect their citizens against climate change by doing their part to lower emissions. We intend to establish the same in the Four Courts in January.”

With the Government fragile, a fear may have taken hold  that carbon taxes might fall into water-tax category and bring political mayhem

There was a belief that the landmark IPCC report would prompt the Government to impose a modest increase on carbon tax in Tuesday’s budget. For those seeking a scaling-up of efforts – in response to rising Irish emissions in transport, agriculture and heating buildings and failure to meet renewable energy targets – the absence of an announcement suggested shocking indifference.

It seemed previous pronouncements by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and (now former) minister for climate action Denis Naughten acknowledging Ireland's poor climate record and the need for greater urgency were subverted by short-term politics.

With the Government fragile, Joseph Curtin, senior fellow at the Institute of International and European Affairs, believes a fear has taken hold that carbon taxes might fall into "water tax" category and bring political mayhem.

After the budget, he tweeted: “There was no more research to be done, no regulatory, economic, scientific financial or legal uncertainty. Yes, a modest increase would have made almost no difference, but at least it would have shown symbolic political commitment.”

Dr Diarmuid Torney of DCU called it "a really shameful episode in Irish politics".

CCAC chairman Prof John FitzGerald delivered a damning verdict: the failure to apply a widely flagged move to increase carbon tax “signals that the government is not ready to take the obligations of tackling climate change seriously”.

How we get to a decarbonised world has yet to be fully determined but we know what's needed to get on the right trajectory. Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University, a lead author with the IPCC, believes a huge and immediate transformation is required through actions across all of society and throughout the economy.

Nationally, it means implementing the far-reaching Citizens Assembly recommendations and “putting in place a mechanism that consistently puts climate at heart of policy making”.

It should entail putting substantial grants in place to support widespread adoption of renewable energy. “Then ramp up a consumption-based tax to encourage transition,” he says.

A carbon tax can shift the burden of personal taxes away from work and on to pollution

A carbon tax not only encourages a shift in human behaviour; it provides reassurance to those investing in green technologies that their efforts will be supported. It can shift the burden of personal taxes away from work and on to pollution.

In tandem, Thorne says, there is a need to exploit a diverse energy mix: solar; onshore and offshore wind; wave and tidal; battery and possible other storage solutions, many of which Ireland is well-placed to exploit.

Regional plans are needed for the adoption of renewable energy in the way Tipperary Energy Agency deploys "indigenous innovation" to drive changes towards retro-fitting of homes by removing fossil fuel boilers and creating "zero energy" buildings.

Joined up planning is required “to avoid lock-in to carbon intensive choices”.

Locally, there should be many opportunities for communities to come together to embrace renewable energy, whether it’s the local school or sports club, to foster behavioural change.

Individually, there is a need to “eat local and seasonal, and less meat”; to reduce car journeys, and for those with cash in hand to retro-fit their homes and embrace electric vehicles.

Research and development should be concentrated on developing “solutions we can then export to the world”, he adds.

Curtin suggests we should concentrate efforts on ramping up carbon tax; get the retro-fitting programme into place with interest-free loans, enable major investment in electric vehicles and address the future of Irish farming from a land-use perspective – not just with a view to making “what we are doing” more efficient.

“The idea is to change short-run and long-run behaviour. In the short, many people can substitute coal for wood-based heating fuels, and many commuters could take public transport, walk or cycle instead of driving. A carbon tax rewards these choices.

Others are locked into commuting or heating choices in the short run, but in the medium term can retro-fit their home or buy a highly efficient vehicle the next time they are making a purchasing choice. Others may decide not to change, and they will pay more for fuel.”

Even with a dramatic increase in the carbon tax, there would probably only be a relatively modest decrease in emissions, so it needs to be combined with other measures, Curtin says.

We need to end our use of fossil fuels in a single generation. Taking that leap is going to be good for our society and economy

But his real concern is not around the economics, it’s about the politics. “Is climate a genuine priority for the current administration? Are they willing to expend political capital to address the issue? Can other political parties be brought on board through consultation before the next budget? The answers to the above questions are obviously ‘no’.”

There was one fateful twist during a dramatic week on climate change fronts.

Minister for communications, climate action and environment Denis Naughten resigned in the face much acrimony over meetings he had with the key bidder in the national broadband procurement process.

The timing could not be worse from a climate perspective. Ireland must, in the space of few short months, recast its entire climate-change policy and indicate to the EU how it will meet demanding targets for 2030 on the route to decarbonisation by 2050 by way of a national energy and climate plan.

Naughten assumed responsibility for a new department with a remarkably wide range of responsibilities; one that took time to bed in and arguably was not given sufficient expertise to deal with emerging complexities of energy and climate change.

Over the past 18 months, however, national plans on mitigation and adaptation to climate change were published. An overhaul of support schemes for renewable energy and heat was completed. The National Development Plan included €22 billion under climate action.

The hard evidence, however, will show that his term coincided with a rising emissions curve, out of line with most EU countries, and that there was little policy coherence or sense of urgency across Government. As a consequence, Curtin believes “ultimately his legacy is one of monumental failure and complacency on the climate front”.

The Irish political system must act now, informed by the IPCC report which shows "the scale of the challenge we face in avoiding the most dangerous levels of global warming", says Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.

“We need to end our use of fossil fuels in a single generation, transitioning our workforce to a low-carbon economy in a fair and just manner. Taking that leap is going to be good for our society and economy. We will have to reduce our national herd but can do so in a way which pays farmers properly for managing our land.”

Renewable energy in abundance can power the country into the future, he says. “Our over-reliance on the private car is not working for anyone. Switching to public transport, walking and cycling will allow us build healthier and stronger communities for everyone.”

Historians will look back at these findings as one of the defining moments in the course of human affairs

The IPCC report says we must limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. “This would limit the impacts of extreme weather, including heatwaves, storms and floods, with their devastating impacts, especially on the poorest communities.”

“I have no doubt that historians will look back at these findings as one of the defining moments in the course of human affairs,” lead climate negotiator for small island states Amjad Abdulla said this week. “I urge all civilised nations to take responsibility for it by dramatically increasing our efforts to cut the emissions responsible for the crisis.”

The scientists have offered a clear prescription. Ireland’s politicians and citizens have a lot of work to do – and very little time.

Eight tasks for the new minister for climate action

  • Complete the draft national energy and climate plan with a high degree of specificity by end of the year, having consulted as widely as possible.
  • Commission a "road map" for the future of agriculture, to be completed shortly after the IPCC releases its "future of land use" report next year.
  • A detailed plan for the rapid electrification of Irish transport is needed, starting with ensuring easy availability of a "fast re-charging network".
  • Make it mandatory that all Government departments "climate proof" every major action and investment project, and indicate how much carbon it will save.
  • If there is a Brexit deal that is not economically harsh on Ireland, secure agreement on a supplementary budget to introduce a significant carbon tax increase.
  • Use the new Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action to forge cross-party political consensus, including on the setting of five-yearly carbon budgets that run beyond the term of a particular government (as done in the UK).
  • Enable microgeneration in households, farms and businesses, so it's to widely available with the ability to feed into the national grid.
  • Agree and set out the role natural gas, biogas and methane will play in helping to decarbonise Ireland.