So we have a global climate emergency. What next?

The IPCC has sounded an alarm. The first rule of Ireland’s response must be to tell the truth

On Monday evening, my phone’s WhatsApp lit up with a message on a group that had been dormant for the past 12 months.

“Given today’s IPCC report is it time we got active again?” the message said.

It didn’t take long for the group chat to ignite. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, published last Monday, warned world governments that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.

The prognosis is terrifying. Earth is in a critical condition, but the patient hasn't been taking the prescribed medicine and is now experiencing the equivalent of multiple organ failure

The prognosis – if we don’t immediately get on pathways to eliminating greenhouse gases on a global scale well before 2050 – is terrifying. The Earth is in a critical condition, but the patient hasn’t been taking the prescribed medicine and is now experiencing the equivalent of multiple organ failure. Unprecedented extinction rates and habitat loss are driving a simultaneous and equally catastrophic biodiversity emergency that will have profound impacts on global food security but especially on the poorest countries and communities already hit hardest by drought and extreme poverty.

Global governments have ignored climate science for decades and allowed the fossil fuel industry and other vested interests to dictate the policy agendas of many countries, including Ireland, with narratives of denial, delay and obfuscation. If you are aghast at how little progress we have made as a country in the past 30 years since Ireland ratified the UN Convention on Climate Change, consider that the two largest political parties that dominated Irish politics during those years did not even mention climate change in their election manifestos for most of that time. We lost decades debating "why should Ireland do anything when we're such a small country" or "economic growth or recovery must come before the environment" and the latest version: "we are now world leaders with ambitious targets".

Not good enough.

There is no denying that halving our total greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 will be incredibly challenging, but this is mostly because we have left it so late to get going.

I can turn my lights off for sure, but I don't control the source of the electricity. I can switch to cycling, but I can't do anything about the pollution generated by those who choose to drive SUVs instead

The sheer complexity and scale of the crisis make it especially difficult to know where to start, especially at the level of the individual. I can turn my lights off for sure, but I don’t control the source of the electricity. I can switch to cycling, but I can’t do anything about the pollution generated by those who choose to drive SUVs instead. I can become a vegan but that will have little impact given that over 90per cent of meat and dairy production is exported. Given that government policies are often supporting the very industries and economic activities that are doing the damage, why would any individual be motivated to reduce their personal carbon footprint?

It requires joining lots of dots to connect our immediate experience with a slowly unfolding global emergency, too many for the average person, no matter how well informed or well disposed. And our sense of time and scale blinds us too. Over geological timeframes the Earth is warming at explosive rates. Yet we blithely compare this year’s weather to last year’s and many disasters quickly slip from memory.

Drifting into anxiety or apathy is thus an understandable response and many people will simply view the whole issue as a threat to their lifestyles and beliefs. But as climate scientist Peter Thorne put it this week, quite frankly, physics doesn’t care about our beliefs. Or our lifestyles.

Yet it is not “we” who have ignored the science. Irish emissions are guilt-inducing to be sure at over 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per person in 2020, well over 50per cent higher than the EU average. But that approach masks the unique influence of certain industries over environmental policy, and the State’s disregard for the environment generally, over the past 50 years. We have grown used to the narrative that economic progress necessitates more roads, sprawling development and the sacrifice of precious habitats in the “public interest” with little or no public debate about the long-term impacts on the environment or society.

The biggest impediment to climate action is now the lobbying carried out by powerful economic interests that obscure and distort climate science and “greenwash” certain technologies or industries – for example, hybrid cars (that do little for climate compared to electric vehicles), air travel and meat and dairy exports. There are no mandatory obligations on companies to report their total climate impacts across the entire value chain, so the public can be easily misled or at least confused by “low carbon” claims.

In certain sectors, this is compounded by misrepresentations of climate science. In particular, the farming media has far too often reported blatantly false claims about the climate impacts of methane from livestock farming. If we are serious about tackling the climate emergency, the first rule of the new climate politics is to tell the truth – no matter how inconvenient.

Ireland has a world-renowned wind energy resource, with potential for achieving over 100 per cent of our electricity demand from renewables such that we could be exporting electricity instead of importing oil and gas

Ireland has a world-renowned wind energy resource, with potential for achieving over 100 per cent of our electricity demand from renewables such that we could be exporting electricity instead of importing oil and gas. But this will not come about without a firm commitment to phasing out all fossil generation and limiting all new fossil infrastructure – which includes new gas generation plants, oil and gas boilers, gas network extensions and LNG (liquified natural gas) storage.

With a coherent long-term vision, we could meet all our energy needs with non-emitting sources of electricity well before 2050. Various studies have shown that this is both technically feasible and cost effective without reliance on carbon capture and storage.

To take advantage of our incredible renewable electricity potential we will need to greatly accelerate the electrification of heating and transport, by supporting the installations of heat pumps and making public transport and active travel (cycling, walking) the default choices for short journeys. The next Climate Action Plan, due in the autumn, should put citizens and communities at the heart of the transition to 100 per cent renewables, and to give communities and householders the chance to generate, own and benefit from their own energy.

Just 1 per cent of the energy auctioned through the latest support scheme for renewables is currently allocated for community-owned power, despite rising demand. By contrast, over 40 per cent of all renewable capacity in Germany is owned by citizens, mostly community energy co-operatives or farmers, and renewables now employ more people in Germany than coal mining and conventional fuels combined. More than 10,000 community energy associations are driving the energy transition across Europe.

Members invest their own money – usually supplemented by bank loans to the co-op – in solar generation, wind power, small hydroelectric plants, bioenergy and even combined heat and power plants. For some reason, the energy regulator, utilities, and Government have been extremely slow to remove the barriers in Ireland to community-owned energy and microgeneration, depriving citizens from participating – and profiting from – the energy transition except as passive consumers.

However, Ireland’s commendable performance in integrating renewables onto a standalone electricity grid is being rapidly undermined by the inexplicable support by Government for data centres – gigantic warehouses full of electricity-guzzling servers that store and process data for tech companies.

According to the Irish Academy of Engineering 31 per cent of all electricity demand will come from data centres by 2027. Government policy supports the fast-tracking of data centres as "strategic infrastructure" but this is glaringly out of synch with post 2020 climate policy and it now threatens the stability of the electricity grid.

It was recently reported that the tech industry, through Cloud Infrastructure Ireland – set up by employers’ body Ibec – has already begun lobbying heavily against any moratorium on the building of data centres. Instead it is promoting on-site fossil fuel generation which, according to experts, will make Ireland’s 2030 emission reduction targets impossible to meet.

The other sector which has vast potential for improvements in air quality, health and wellbeing along with reduced emissions is transport. It is no surprise that Ireland’s transport emissions are stubbornly high, given our extraordinary rates of car dependence, over-investment in roads, and low-density sprawling settlement. A fifth of all car journeys are less than 2km, making the promotion of cycling and walking no-brainers for emission reductions.

Yet government transport policies over the past three decades since the IPCC first reported on climate breakdown have failed us and our environment abysmally. We have been collectively lured into car dependency by poor land-use planning and glossy advertising that pushes the high-status value of new and ever-bigger cars.

All forms of road transport, including freight and even farm vehicles, will eventually be electrified, and many shorter trips could be taken by public transport, e-bikes, shared mobility schemes and short-term car hire and car sharing

Financial institutions too are complicit in promoting loans for new car purchases and unsustainable construction, despite the cost to society at large. Provision for active travel infrastructure has been utterly miserable, and even today, it rarely amounts to more than a painted white line on the road.

While the reallocation of road space to public transport and cyclists does require careful planning and deliberation, it is disappointing to see well-heeled neighbourhoods and businesses asserting property rights to block initiatives that are clearly in the overall public interest.

For this sector, new technologies and smart gadgets will play a major role, but they will be “soft” and designed at human scales around sustainable communities, all calibrated to reduce unnecessary journeys and get us from A to B efficiently. All forms of road transport, including freight and even farm vehicles, will eventually be electrified, and many short and medium length trips could be taken by public transport, e-bikes, shared mobility schemes and short-term car hire and car sharing.

Notwithstanding commitments in the 2020 Programme for Government, Ireland is still desperately behind in rolling out safe cycling routes and shared mobility services in our urban centres despite the clear benefits to health and environment. By contrast, Denmark is planning to build 760km of high-quality cycling superhighways radiating out from the centre of Copenhagen to facilitate longer journeys of 12km or 13km by e-bikes.

One of the key findings in the newly-released IPCC report is that emissions of methane have made a huge contribution to current warming. The report suggested that 30-50 per cent of the recent rise in temperatures is down to this powerful, but short-lived gas.

Methane is released by ruminant livestock (cattle and sheep), and the total emissions from agriculture are expected to increase by 2030 or at best reduce by just 10 per cent under the latest agri-food strategy. Agriculture contributes over a third of Ireland’s emissions. However current policies are still insufficient to reduce this climate impact and tackle the related problems of water pollution, farmland biodiversity loss and air pollution.

It is striking that while the new climate law adopted in July commits to overall reductions of 51 per cent in greenhouse gas emissions on an economy-wide basis by 2030, there is an ongoing expectation in the agricultural sector that somehow it will be exempt from a concomitant effort.

According to Dr Paul Deane of UCC, a 10 per cent reduction in methane – relative to 2018 – would require reductions of 73 per cent in electricity, heat and transport by 2030 to meet the Government’s plan for an overall reduction of Irish emissions of 51 per cent, which is almost impossible to imagine.

The second rule of climate politics is that the numbers must stack up. All agricultural emissions must be properly counted and reported in the upcoming carbon budget and sectoral emissions ceiling that will be allocated to the sector. While the issues and policy responses may indeed be complex, and reliant upon targeted schemes and payments to encourage diversification and forestry, agricultural policy needs an overhaul to make low intensity and high nature value farming economically viable.

Our agricultural model is overly focused on livestock production that relies on chemical nitrogen inputs and has become increasingly intensive and thus polluting in recent years. But Ireland is an outlier in expanding its dairy sector in recent years. The organic share of Austria’s agricultural output is more than 25 per cent, whereas in Ireland it is 1.6 per cent, and there are many other examples of sustainable agricultural practices across Europe we could follow.

The scale of Ireland's housing crisis and the poor energy rating of the existing housing stock require a rethink of both spatial planning and housing policy

The third rule of climate politics is act with future generations in mind. When we build houses, they should be future proofed, designed to last with minimal energy inputs and to create sustainable communities. Our environment is more than the sky above our heads: it is where we live, work, eat and play.

Buildings must be flexible over people’s lifetimes to accommodate changing needs and new uses. They should enable people to live in communities that are compact enough to provide for basic social needs without requiring a car, or at least car ownership. We need to invest in towns and villages, not just retrofitting, to make that vision a realistic option for everyone.

The scale of Ireland’s housing crisis and the poor energy rating of the existing housing stock require a rethink of both spatial planning and housing policy. New construction is inevitable and badly needed, but new housing construction could use up to 50 per cent of our carbon budget by 2050 if not designed carefully.

We cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past by building more sprawling settlements poorly integrated into existing towns and cities, and with no provision for public transport. We should instead focus on utilising existing buildings more efficiently and aggressively taxing vacant sites/buildings.

The government could follow Denmark in regulating embodied carbon in buildings (just like a life-cycle assessment) and incentivise the reuse of existing buildings. Retrofitting will need to be made affordable and easy but at current rates of just over 3000 deep retrofits per year we are far, far off-course and the shortage of skilled professionals could put the achievement of the 2030 targets in jeopardy without a concerted programme to attract new people into the labour force.

The twin challenges of housing and climate put a spotlight on the potential for a deep decarbonisation pathway that simultaneously addresses a profound social crisis. We do not have to choose between fair housing and a safe climate: our cohesion as a society depends on both. In a way, the climate crisis is a reminder of some basic ecological truths that have been ignored by successive governments for too long, that we must learn to respect nature and live within planetary boundaries, while meeting human needs.

We ignore these at our peril.

Read: What can I do to help combat climate change?

Sadhbh O'Neill is a researcher and lecturer in climate policy at Dublin City University

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