The UK may dither over Brexit and have an endlessly fractious relationship with the EU, but it is now taking the lead on climate change. Can Ireland keep pace?
Two recent moves by the UK show its serious commitment to battle global warming.
It has become the first national parliament in the world to declare an “environmental and climate emergency”, and its powerful Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s official climate adviser, last week published its advice on when – and how – the country should reach “net-zero” emissions.
This move means by mid-century any carbon dioxide it releases into the atmosphere has to be countered by reductions elsewhere or use of technology to capture and store the greenhouse gas. Buying one’s way out by “carbon offsetting” will no longer be an option.
"Make no mistake, this report will change your life," said Prof David Reay at the University of Edinburgh. "If the meticulous and robust expert advice here is heeded it will deliver a revolution in every facet of our lives, from how we power our homes and travel to work to the food we buy."
The Irish Government is about to publish its major blueprint on how Ireland will respond to demands of the landmark Paris Agreement and scale up ambition with a view to becoming “a climate leader”. So how do our current plans and likely future stance compare with the UK’s ground-breaking moves?
UK: Net-zero emissions would mean the end of petrol and diesel cars and gas boilers; less meat on plates, the quadrupling of clean electricity generation and the planting of an estimated 1.5 billion trees.
It will require tens of billions of pounds of investment every year, the CCC says, but not acting would be far more costly. The changes will also deliver a cleaner and healthier society.
If adopted, the CCC target would “fully meet the UK’s obligations under the Paris Agreement”, reaching net-zero some 20 years ahead of most other countries.
Ireland: We are currently on a trajectory that is worse than the global average. Current targets on emissions and renewable energy would not match the UK's ambition. What's more, overall Irish emissions are increasing, not decreasing as they are in the UK and most EU member states. Current global commitments would lead to 3 degrees of warming (far below the 1.5 degree target needed to avoid catastrophic damage).
That said, Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton, who is co-ordinating the completion of the "whole of Government plan", has consistently indicated it will embrace more ambitious targets that will demand a transformation of the economy and wider society.
UK: The CCC says achieving net-zero carbon emissions is "necessary, affordable and desirable". Setting the legally-binding target, which has wide political support, will be the easy bit. The scale of transformation needed to meet the target is enormous.
Ireland: The country has committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2030 "and to approach near-zero carbon impact by 2050" – a much more demanding target given our current laggard performance, and yet that does not match the scale of UK intent.
UK: By 2050, petrol and diesel cars should be a distant memory, ideally banned from sale in favour of electric vehicles two decades earlier. "2030 would be my ideal switchover date, but we have said 2035 at the latest to be cautious," said CCC chief executive Chris Stark. Switching sooner will save people money as electric cars are cheaper to run in the long run.
Ireland: Ideally the country would need to get 100 per cent electric vehicles (EVs) on Irish roads by the end of the next decade. However, its target is 500,000 EVs on the road, with no new fossil fuel vehicles sold after 2030. It ticks the very ambitious box, but investment in the alternative option of public transport and cycling is at a deplorably low level compared to international norms. What's more, transport emissions are rising relentlessly.
UK: EVs need a lot of electricity, so clean power generation must quadruple by 2050, the CCC says. That means more offshore windfarms, as the cheapest options – onshore windfarms – are effectively banned in England. Big storage capacity will also be needed, but battery costs are plummeting.
Ireland: We face a similar scenario, but we stand out already as a world leader in having a grid capable of taking large volumes of renewable energy. Moreover, Mr Bruton has confirmed a 2030 target of 70 per cent electricity from renewables; no more peat, coal and oil in generating our power by 2030. That is the kind of ambition needed to honour the Paris Agreement.
UK: Homes heated by natural gas will also be long gone by 2050, the CCC predicts, with no new home being connected to the gas grid after 2025. Electrified heating will be more common, but hydrogen could be an alternative to natural gas, if it can be produced cleanly at scale.
Ireland: In contrast, the country is hugely dependent on imported oil and gas. Relying on such energy sources, notably gas, is set to continue, while more than 1.5 million homes will need to be retrofitted at a cost of many billions of euros to end reliance on the oil boiler and to make buildings energy efficient.
Agriculture – the meat issue
UK: Meat production has a big environmental impact and is the subject of much controversy. The CCC envisages only a 20 per cent cut in beef, lamb and dairy consumption in 2050, far lower than other studies or the 86 per cut needed to meet UK health guidelines.
“We absolutely don’t think there would be support for that [huge cut], or that it is necessary,” said Stark. “A 20 per cent cut seems cautious and prudent to us, but it is true that if you were to shift more to plant-based diets, the [net-zero] target would be easier overall.”
Ireland: The recent report by the all-party Climate Action Committee, much of which Mr Bruton is likely to adopt, agreed a transformation of Irish agriculture was necessary.
It endorsed a Teagasc plan, though exactly how necessary reductions in agricultural emissions will be realisable has yet to be determined – notwithstanding the carbon efficiency of Irish dairying and beef sectors (assisted by grass-based production) compared to other countries.
UK: The landscape will significantly change by 2050, if emissions are stopped. A fifth of all farmland will have been converted to tree planting and growing biofuel crops.
Ireland: The country will also need to rebalance farming to accommodate bioenergy and afforestation, but for us the single most effective way to capture carbon will be to restore and re-wet boglands, notably in the Midlands.
UK: Flying is included in the net-zero target. The CCC says there could be limited expansion of aviation if airlines can cut their emissions per flight, potentially with electric planes for short-haul flights. The number of flights is increasing, and the CCC predicts government action will be needed to constrain the growth.
Ireland: We will have to face up to the same issue.
UK: North Sea oil and gas fields should switch from pumping up carbon in oil and gas to piping down CO2 for burial, the CCC concludes, as carbon capture and storage is "absolutely essential" to hitting zero emissions, although the technology is unproven at scale.
Ireland: The country has a big carbon capture and storage opportunity with the likely availability of the Kinsale offshore gas field – a possibility being evaluated by Ervia.
UK: The country is a leader in setting five-yearly carbon budgets, which limits emissions while increasingly taxing carbon, ie fossil fuel use.
Ireland: We are likely to adopt such a model, with the Climate Action Committee backing a decision to increase carbon taxes up to €80 per ton of CO2 by 2030.
What it all means
The UK has boldly charted a way to a world where air pollution is reduced as fossil fuel burning ends, and a comprehensive series of climate actions to ease damage to people’s health. Unquestionably, if fully adopted it adds up to a new industrial revolution based on a sustainable economy.
If the world followed and global warming is limited to well below 2 degrees, the toll from heatwaves, floods and storms would be much lower.
It has been clear for some time that the only way to stabilise the climate is to achieve net-zero emissions. Citizens increasingly acknowledge the need to pursue this course – politicians’ willingness to take such radical action remains in doubt.