Éamonn Meehan: The next few months will tell if 2015 was a year of positive change

Ireland must make good on the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris agreement

Each Irish person is responsible for as much carbon emissions as 88 Ethiopians. Remarkably, it would take 400 million of the world’s poorest people to match Ireland’s total emissions.

Each Irish person is responsible for as much carbon emissions as 88 Ethiopians. Remarkably, it would take 400 million of the world’s poorest people to match Ireland’s total emissions.

 

The history books will likely remember 2015 as a year dominated by the worsening refugee crisis and bookended by appalling acts of violence in Paris. It will also be remembered for successful, coordinated global efforts with the recently-adopted Sustainable Development Goals aiming to address the root causes of poverty and with the new agreement for global action on climate change achieved at the summit in Paris this December.

These affirming developments offer great hope as we strive for a world in which every man, woman and child are born equal. However the action taken over the coming months will determine whether 2015 will also be remembered as a year of enormously positive change in the world.

The Paris summit in particular was special. With tremendous effort from all sides, political leaders from 196 countries reached a deal that can provide a roadmap for significantly increased action to reduce harmful emissions and improve the resilience of developing countries already suffering from the impacts of climate change. This agreement itself was only possible thanks to people-power and from the engagement of communities around the world, who have consistently demanded political action to combat climate change and to expedite truly sustainable policies.

The links between poverty, hunger and worsening climate impacts are now clearly recognised; the fact that government responses thus far have been insufficient has been acknowledged and the need to build on commitments in Paris is accepted.

Yet it would be wrong to suggest we have reached an adequate conclusion with a stroke of a pen. Eight hundred million people are suffering from chronic hunger and crop yields in many developing countries are expected to decline dramatically as global temperatures increase. Therefore protecting the most vulnerable from further impacts of climate change and ensuring that any actions taken respect human rights has to be fundamental in the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Respecting human rights means ensuring that the action taken to meet the global warming limit of 1.5°C puts people first. We cannot rely on schemes for example which may provide limited or a supposed future climate benefit but allow polluting sectors to continue to pollute. Additionally, we must not incentivise the use of land to ‘take in’ or absorb harmful greenhouse gas emissions where this displaces vulnerable communities and undermines small-scale farmers in developing countries. Building on the strong links between food and poverty eradication in the Agreement, developed countries must also take the lead in providing significantly increased financial assistance in order to protect access to food in already vulnerable regions.

At European level the EU must show developing countries that its current pledge to reduce emissions is not the final word on EU ambition for the next 10 years. The EU is already well on track to exceed its 2020 collective target. This early progress and the new legal obligations under the Paris Agreement means that the EU must work now, alongside new legislation, to redouble its 2020 emission reduction efforts and improve its 2030 commitments as soon as possible.

It must be remembered that responding to this challenge is not just an environmental issue, it is an issue of justice and inequality. This is a global crisis, one to which we have contributed. Each Irish person is responsible for as much carbon emissions as 88 Ethiopians. Remarkably, it would take 400 million of the world’s poorest people to match Ireland’s total emissions. Clearly, we have a responsibility to respond.

Ireland has taken very important steps. Over recent weeks we have seen the largest ever climate-related public demonstration to have happened in Ireland when approximately 5,000 people took to the streets to call for strong political action, as well as the introduction of the first ever piece of domestic legislation related to climate change.

The new domestic legislation requires that a national action plan to reduce harmful emissions be completed within 18 months. This must be fast-tracked and produced in 2016 taking in to account the transparent analysis of the government’s new Climate Change Advisory Council, if we are to have any chance of meeting our EU commitments and preventing huge non-compliance costs.

There has been an unfortunate tendency to frame the emission reduction commitments as a burden for Ireland. The fact is that we need to meet these requirements for our own good. The flooding that devastated so much of the country in these past weeks is only a glimpse of what the future holds unless we, along with all other countries, begin to embrace our responsibilities.

It is also misleading to frame the debate around whether we want a vibrant agricultural sector or reduced emissions. Many Irish farmers are strongly engaged on the need for climate action and this framing of Irish agriculture and climate action as opposites is damaging and confusing, promoting inaction and an incorrect perception that strong input from all sectors is unnecessary.

What is required is a truly national effort, across all sectors and communities. It should also not be painted as an unwarranted imposition - there are hugely positive opportunities for all parts of society to embrace.

Only if these inclusive steps are taken based on justice and equity will 2015 be remembered as a year when the world finally began to take responsibility for its actions.

Éamonn Meehan is the Executive Director of Trócaire.

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