Disconnect persists between need for climate action and getting on with it

Analysis: Decarbonisation provides big opportunity if mix of policy, finance and innovation is right

A handout image issued by the European Space Agency (ESA) of deforestation in Bolivia seen from a satellite. Record amounts of CO2 continue to be pumped into the atmosphere every year so record global temperatures following in tandem should not be a surprise. Photograph: ESA/PA Wire.

The science is clear: What the world needs to do to confront a rapidly unfolding climate crisis is to halve carbon emissions by 2030, reach net-zero by 2050 at the latest – and inject much more pace in going about that process.

Analysis presented at Dublin Climate Dialogures shows some $130 trillion of investment will be required over the next three decades to decarbonise the world and build a clean energy system with capacity to accommodate 100 per cent renewable energy on power grids. It is time to get on with it.

Yet a disconnect persists; record amounts of CO2 continue to be pumped into the atmosphere every year – we should not be surprised record global temperatures follow in tandem with this carbon pollution.

This was reinforced in a blunt message from International Energy Agency (IEA) director Fatih Birol to the gathering. While more and more countries are signing up to net-zero emissions targets, global emissions are on course to surge by 1.5 billion tonnes this year; the second-largest increase in history.


“The gap between the rhetoric and what is happening in real life is widening.”

It is easy to fall victim to the latest round of climate doom in such circumstances, but the dialogues did not linger on scientific updates. It set about asking what could be done, recognising the “need to speed up and to scale up” and – critically at this juncture – to “transition from talking to acting now” in the face of widespread failure to deliver on Paris Agreement pledges.

It did so with participation by representatives of large carbon-emitting countries in the virtual room with a view to setting a clear course for consideration at COP26 climate negotiations next November.

Not getting job done

It came with endorsement from US climate envoy John Kerry who told participants: "The truth is we're not just getting the job done – yet." Actions in 2021 are essential, "because if we don't do enough now you can't keep global warming to the 1.5 degrees".

The Dublin declaration that emerged cannot be accused of being peppered with vague aspirations. It did not shirk from tackling obvious failings in how we live and do business almost totally reliant on fossil fuels. It comes to the same conclusion as the IEA this week in its landmark report on achieving a net-zero energy system which concludes “there can be no new investment in oil, gas and coal – from now”.

Both documents conclude it is doable but only through sustained action ranged across governments, the private sector, cities, communities and individuals – though it may not be enough to avoid a 3.7-degree world.

The IEA message is emphatic. We can get to net zero. All of the technical problems are solvable – a remarkable verdict from a body that once did the bidding of the fossil fuels sector. But these are much changed times in facing up to the urgent need for a new sustainable way to conduct business. Arguably, this is where the declaration is strongest.

That realisation is also taking root in countries most responsible for carbon pollution. Dialogues chair Pat Cox welcomed strong indication from China on its decarbonisation path.

“China emits more greenhouse gas emissions that the US, EU and UK combined. If China was not a player, there would be no game.”

It would not reach “emissions peak” until 2029, but from 2030 to 2060, he noted, it means “China will have to have the fastest, biggest, most unprecedented energy transition in global history”.

The declaration is balanced by unequivocal acknowledgement of the need for a just transition, and enhanced supports for climate-vulnerable states in the developing world, especially in rollout of costly renewable energy infrastructure.

Immediacy of threat

The prime minister of Barbados Mia Amor Mottley could not have been clearer on the immediacy of the climate threat when she cut through a lot of what could be fog at COP26 by declaring: "I don't want bragging lists; I want some realistic strategies."

“That was a real cri de coeur; a frontline state one disaster away from potential extinction,” Cox noted.

The Dublin declaration underlines how decarbonisation can provide immense opportunity if the complex mix of policy, financing, innovation, carbon pricing and participation is right – backed by international collaboration and honesty on technological gaps to be urgently addressed.

We are, however, at the point of taking hard decisions. And as former Italian prime minister Enrico Letta said, there is a need "to avoid creating conflict between people who worry about the end of the world and people who worry about the end of the month".

This leads back to the politicians’ dilemma, Cox believes, encapsulated by Jean-Claude Juncker – who said as politicians “we all know what to do but sometimes we don’t know how to get re-elected after we have done it”.

Political willingness on decisively addressing the climate crisis, that goes beyond pointing to headline targets, is about to be tested like never before.

Ireland’s much-vaunted increased climate ambitions faces an immediate challenge; the country has to set its first carbon budget backed by sectoral emission limits. Irish politicians should complete the process having taken on board the Dublin declaration.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times