People’s attention may have been elsewhere – the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines or the Brexit negotiations – but this has been a week that will set the agenda on climate change for decades, and it’s not finished yet.
The European Union is pushing on with becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral group of nations by agreeing a 55 per cent emissions cut for 2030, with half of its member states firmly on the path to substantial Co2 cuts.
However, the most reliable global rankings – in the form of the Climate Change Performance Index – show Ireland is stuck close to the bottom of the table among carbon-polluting countries.
Despite all of the pledges made, the State is not quite down among the outliers of Europe (Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) but it is hovering just above.
Ireland improved slightly – moving from 41st in 2019 to 39th place this year among the globe’s most-polluting 57 countries, accounting for 90 per cent of global emissions.
That, though, is largely down to a rise in the State’s renewable energy supplies, and some policy pledges by the Government. It has little to do with actually cutting emissions. Here, Ireland’s grade is ranked as “very low”.
The EU stands at a crossroads on climate change and Ireland is among those heading in the wrong direction, in spite of a declared wish to be a global trailblazer.
On Saturday, global leaders will show off new decarbonisation targets at a UN pledging summit, and the pledges have come thick and fast ahead of the virtual gathering of leaders.
Last week, the United Kingdom vowed to cut emissions by 68 per cent by 2030, with the UK government's advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), saying this is "ambitious and affordable".
Half of all cars on UK roads, it pledged, will be electric by 2030 while 10,000 giant wind turbines in the North Sea will drive electricity supplies, along with a big shift to heat pumps, hydrogen gas and district heating.
Given where Ireland stands today, such ambition – effectively the removal of carbon, mostly fossil fuels, from the heart of the economy – could not be matched by Dublin, even if it has backed the EU’s 55 per cent cut.
That said, Ireland's most senior climate scientist within the UN arm driving implementation of the Paris agreement, Prof Peter Thorne of Maynooth University, is not despondent.
Getting effective climate policy into place, he says, is the equivalent of turning around a large ocean-going supertanker: “It’s just not going to happen immediately. You cannot change a national car fleet overnight.”
Much of the blame –and there is plenty of it to spread about, he says – lies with State policies in place five and 10 years ago, and more, but he is not pinning responsibility on the current or previous administration.
If, on the other hand, the programme for government is fully implemented, “we could be having a very different conversation in three to four years’ time”, he told The Irish Times.
DCU specialist on climate policy Dr Diarmuid Torney acknowledges recent policy improvements, but action is still lacking. Emissions cannot be cut when delivery is lacking, he says.
“A lot of attention is going into the Climate Bill, but it’s only a framework for action,” Torney adds, so the quicker a strong version is put in place, the better in getting improved outcomes.
Policy adviser for the Stop Climate Chaos coalition, Sadhbh O’Neill, says there is a surprising amount of political consensus and commitment to ambitious climate action and that it goes beyond the Green Party.
Strong governance will be added, she says, if obvious weaknesses in the Climate Bill are to be addressed. “Assuming the Bill is in place before the summer, it will send a very important signal to the rest of the economy. . . because of legally binding targets. That drives everything,” she adds.
Increasingly, however, it’s not clear that the transformation necessary in agriculture (accounting for 35.3 per cent of Ireland’s emissions) and transport is going to happen, O’Neill says – while massive retrofitting of buildings is likely to encounter skill shortages and financing issues, she predicts.
The Government’s approach to agriculture and environment “is incoherent and still pulling in opposite directions”. The Department of Agriculture’s AgClimatise Roadmap Towards Climate Neutrality published this week is the most far-reaching and cross-cutting set of actions that have been proposed for the sector to date. O’Neill acknowledges welcome measures to reduce nitrogen fertilisers; develop forest and land sinks; restore native woodlands; and promote organic and horticultural production.
Yet, she believes it will not deliver enough cuts in time in line with Ireland’s climate targets. It does not envisage agricultural methane emissions falling before 2030, which is “entirely unacceptable”.
Covid-19 offers the chance to remake the world, Thorne says, but it must be recognised the pandemic was fundamentally linked to the climate and biodiversity crises. A return to old ways will bring new viruses, he warns.
Good words alone do not cut emissions, he says, warning that new figures in coming months could show that the key Paris target of keeping warming to within a 1.5-degree rise can no longer be done.
History shows countries do not keep their word, he insists. Sometimes luck explains when targets are met, not policy. The UK based its targets on a “dash for gas” and offshore, but but is not necessarily addressing bigger climate issues.
Emissions must be cut by 78 per cent by 2035 if the Earth will be at net zero 2050: “ The first 50 per cent is relatively easy and a lot less costly if you move quickly, but hugely challenging for all after that,” he adds.