Monday’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm bell once again. It set out the scale of change required to avoid catastrophic levels of climate change. These changes require profound transformations in the global economy and society. The window has nearly – but not quite – closed on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a critical threshold for a safe global climate system.
In the recent past we have seen a series of high-profile catastrophic weather events, including extreme flooding in Belgium and Germany, and wildfires in California and Australia, for example. Climate change is not some kind of distant threat, happening in some distant place or at some point in the future. It is here and now. And it will get worse without radical action.
According to this week’s report, the rate of increase of heat-trapping greenhouse gases has slowed in the past decade, but is still going in the wrong direction. If we don’t strengthen our global response to climate change urgently, greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise beyond 2025, leading to projected warming of 3.2 degrees. This is more than double the Paris Agreement threshold of 1.5 degrees.
Climate action is not a nice-to-have, optional extra. To quote from the second instalment of the IPCC report published at the end of February, “Climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.” This is remarkably stark language for a document written by scientists and approved, word by word, by governments around the world.
Solutions are available
This week’s IPCC report laid out clearly that many of the solutions we need are already available to us. It charts pathways forward across different sectors, and notes the significant reduction in the cost of key low carbon technologies. For example, over the 2010-2019 decade, the unit cost of solar energy declined by 85 per cent, wind energy unit costs decreased by 55 per cent, and lithium-ion battery costs fell by 85 per cent.
The report also highlights the huge inequities of climate change. It notes that, globally, the top 10 per cent of households in emissions terms contribute far beyond their fair share, and are responsible for 34-45 per cent of global emissions when measured on the basis of what we consume.
This inequity in responsibility for climate change is true between countries: the nations of the rich, developed world – Ireland included – are responsible for a disproportionate share of emissions. But it is also true within countries: the well-off in each country are responsible for far more than their fair share of emissions than those on lower incomes. Our response to climate change, at home and globally, must be built upon principles of fairness and justice.
The attention of policymakers and the public has understandably focused in recent weeks on the appalling atrocities being committed by Russia in Ukraine. There is a risk, however, that the momentum built up around climate action in recent years will dissipate in the current context of crisis. We need to do better at integrating climate action into decision-making so that it doesn’t drop off the agenda when a seemingly more immediate crisis comes along.
I’ve been working on climate change for more than 15 years, and I can’t recall any time during that period when it wasn’t said that climate change could wait while we dealt with more urgent challenges. Climate change is urgent. It is here and now. And we need to get on with doing something about it.
We also need to do better at linking climate action to other priorities. For example, the solution to our dependence on Russian fossil fuels surely cannot be to make ourselves massively dependent on fossil fuels from other regions. We need instead a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, addressing simultaneously our energy dependence on Russia and helping to secure a safe climate.
Ireland’s revised climate law, enacted last year with cross-party consensus, aimed explicitly to set a durable, stable framework for climate policymaking and to lock in a high level of ambition. It is supposed to hard-wire climate into our policymaking system so that it doesn’t drop off the agenda when other crises emerge.
Earlier this week, the Dáil approved the first set of carbon budgets – legally binding five-year caps on emissions – without a vote. That was the easy part. The Government now needs to set out more clearly how the targets set in the carbon budget will be achieved. The next step is that carbon budgets will be allocated into “sectoral emissions ceilings”.
If the Government is serious about its obligations under the climate law, all emissions need to be accounted for in these sectoral ceilings, and we need clear plans and timelines of implementation showing how the carbon budgets will be met. There can be no opt-outs or unallocated emissions.
Those political parties outside of Government that object to current and planned policies have an obligation to set out their alternative policy pathways to achieve the targets set out in the climate law. In the same way that political parties set out alternative budgets, the public have a right to expect that all political parties set out how they intend to achieve the transformational change envisaged by the climate law.
This week’s IPCC report makes clear that there is no more room for delay. We have left it very late to make the transformational changes required. The longer we delay necessary climate action, the more daunting the task will become.
Dr Diarmuid Torney is an associate professor in the school of law and government at DCU and a co-director of the DCU Centre for Climate and Society