Climate change: denial in the US, failure at home

Opportunities to put Ireland on the right track are being missed repeatedly

 

Now rated as the warmest year on record, 2016 was the best of times and the worst of times for our environment, both locally and globally. By far the most significant development was the rapid ratification by more than 100 countries of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, less than a year after it was adopted by acclamation at the UN summit. But just days after the agreement came into force, notorious climate change denier Donald Trump was elected as president of the United States.

And Trump’s subsequent nomination of fellow-deniers to key posts in his incoming administration clearly indicates that the US will now revert to its traditionally negative role in the context of international efforts to tackle global warming. Thus, China now looks likely to become the world leader in this vital arena, as it already is in renewable energy, while Trump’s America turns back to “beautiful clean coal”, as the president-elect has fatuously described the dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet.

At home, the abject failure of successive governments to treat climate change seriously was reflected in findings by the Environmental Protection Agency that Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, which fell during the recession, are rising again as the economy recovers.

In 2015 alone, agriculture was up by 1.5 per cent, transport by 4.2 per cent, domestic energy use by 5.1 per cent and energy production by 5.4 per cent; this upward trend is likely to continue in the absence of effective policies to reverse it. Yet Bord na Móna managed to get planning permission to continue burning peat at its Edenderry power plant until 2023 while no proposals are being put forward to replace the ESB’s much larger Moneypoint coal-fired plant – which belches out 4.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year – with cleaner gas or renewables.

Public policy is ruled by inertia, which is what one expects from a political system that can’t even see the provision of water services as a public utility that needs to be paid for, just like gas or electricity.

As EPA director-general Laura Burke has said, “we must implement measures to decarbonise the transport and energy sectors … and ensure that increases in agricultural production aren’t at the expense of the environment”.

But by deferring the introduction of pay-by-weight charges for waste disposal, failing to promote a shift away from diesel cars by making this polluting fuel more expensive and doing nothing to convert the bus fleet from diesel to more environment-friendly fuels. And while the moratorium on fracking is welcome, piping water from our greatest river directly to serve Dublin’s ever-growing population needs much more careful consideration.

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