What have we committed to on climate change?
Ireland has committed to a range of targets to be achieved by 2020 on carbon emissions from transport, agriculture, industry and buildings – and on adopting renewable energy, especially in power generation.
The targets are legally binding and compatible with the historic 2015 Paris Agreement.
The main 2020 targets include a promise to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming by 20 per cent below 2005 levels, and a binding target of 16 per cent use of renewable energy sources (wind, solar, hydro power; anything but fossil fuels).
On top of this, Ireland’s faces hugely demanding 2030 targets; a 30 per cent reduction on emissions, and 32 per cent on renewables. If we are behind on 2020, it makes delivering on 2030 all the harder and more expensive.
Ireland has pledged to achieve “carbon neutrality” in agriculture by 2050, ie to remove as much CO2 from the atmosphere as put into it from farming; the goal being to achieve “a zero carbon footprint” – the sector is responsible for a third of all Irish emissions.
In the move away from fossil fuels, Ireland has agreed homes and public buildings will be “fully decarbonised” by 2050; a costly undertaking requiring the “deep retrofitting” of many buildings. That deadline is not the distant future; it’s less than the term of a typical mortgage.
How do we currently rate on climate action?
Ireland is not going to meet any of its headline targets by 2020. Latest EPA projections on emissions show at best Ireland will only achieve a 3 per cent reduction by 2020 – instead of 20 per cent. Strong economic growth, widespread use of fossil fuels, a sharp rise in transport emissions and growth in agriculture are feeding this rising trend. A blame game and obsession with fines do little to action solutions and realise the ultimate benefits for Irish society.
Emissions from agriculture are expected to rise by 3 to 4 per cent between now and 2020 while transport will go up by 17 to 18 per cent. Overreliance on diesel and petrol cars and rapid expansion in dairying and beef up to 2025 offer little abatement opportunities.
There are positives. The renewables target in power generation is likely to be missed by only a small margin while Ireland has become a global leader in developing a national power grid catering for large amounts of renewable energy, most notably wind.
The latest Climate Action Network analysis rates Ireland as the second worst performing country in the EU, though no country is living up to its commitments on the Paris Agreement if the rise in global temperatures is to be kept at 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
But Ireland is one of only a handful of member states set to miss 2020 targets and is displaying slow progress relative to others in key areas such as transport and embracing solar technologies and offshore wind.
What are the consequences?
Based on current projections Ireland will have to buy “carbon credits”, ie pay environmental fines from compliant EU member states from 2020. What’s more, these are fines payable each year until commitments are delivered on.
Even allowing for some “flexibilities” allowed by the EU, payments will be in the order of several hundred million euros. Paying the bill is the easy bit; justifying it politically in the event of continuing acute pressures on sectors such as housing and health would test the mettle of any government.
Department of Finance estimates, confirmed by Institute of International and European Affairs analysis, show Ireland could be subject to €6 billion in fines between 2021 and 2030 in a business as usual scenario.
What Ireland could/should do to actually hit its targets?
There is no silver bullet solution. Ireland faces unique climate challenges, especially as agri-food industry is so dominant within our economy.
Climate and energy experts agree on a suite of measures, which should deliver a turnaround, including:
- Address obvious blockages on development of solar and wind farms (especially off-shore). Planning guidelines need to be made coherent in the best interests of both developers and communities living near where they are proposed.
- Get out of peat and coal use in power generation by adopting a much tighter timeline than currently envisaged.
- Set out how we plan to achieve “carbon neutrality” in agriculture which reconciles climate obligations and expansion of the dairying and beef sectors – the alternative is forced cuts in production. Irish farming based on a grass-fed production system is capable of showing world how climate-smart farming may be undertaken.
- Action the highly ambitious list of decarbonisation investments for the power generation, transport and buildings sectors set out in the National Development Plan.
- Support adoption of sustainable biofuels and the deployment of anaerobic digesters to generate green gas.
- Roll out microgeneration, allowing communities, businesses and householders participate in the imminent energy revolution with easy access to the grid.
The political system is, however, not geared for coherent action, monitoring of performance and implementing policy, such as a carbon budget agreed every five years – as happens in the UK.
Appointing an Oireachtas committee for a fixed term to oversee adoption of the Citizens' Assembly recommendations on climate; the re-casting of the flawed National Mitigation Plan and, critically, the shape of a national energy and climate plan which the Government must submit to Brussels, has considerable merit.
A realistic plan setting out how Ireland will meet 2030 targets is urgently required, which uses the carbon budget as a framework for allocation of responsibility between key sectors.
How essential is an increased Carbon tax in mix?
Most climate experts believe a meaningful carbon tax is essential. "We don't need more analysis, we need leadership," according to Joseph Curtin of the IIEA.
The biggest opportunity for immediate climate action is to reduce income taxes and to fill the Exchequer gap though an increased carbon tax, he suggests. An increase in the carbon tax by €50 per tonne would raise up to €1.2 billion; more than filling the gap (assuming no change in behaviour).
Taxing bad things (like environmentally destructive pollution) makes sense, especially when we can alleviate the burden on hardworking families at the same time, he believes.
Increasing carbon tax gives households choices and encourages short- and long-run changes in behaviours. “Electric vehicles and hybrids are, all of a sudden, going to become more attractive, as are highly efficient conventional vehicles, because petrol and diesel are going to be pricier by 13 cents per litre.”
Minister for Climate Action Denis Naughten says there will be specific measures in Budget 2019 to help meet the Government's climate change goals including on carbon tax.
Where stands the world in addressing climate change?
Meanwhile, the climate clock is ticking. Global warming is on course to exceed the most stringent goal set in the Paris Agreement by around 2040 and threatens economic growth, according to a draft UN report on whether the 1.5 degree cap is realisable. Governments can still keep temperatures below the strict 1.5 degrees ceiling but only with “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in the world economy, according to its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.