Leo Varadkar’s focus on climate change has proved shortlived

Amid denial and inefficiency, Ireland refuses to get serious about the climate crisis

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described the National Mitigation Plan on climate change as ‘a first step’. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described the National Mitigation Plan on climate change as ‘a first step’. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

In the world of politics and economics, there’s always a deal to be cut and a compromise to be reached. The real world, governed by the iron laws of physics, is, however, a lot less pliable.

Commenting on the unprecedented recent run of record-smashing global temperatures that have continued right into 2017, the World Meteorological Organisation stated ominously: “We are now in truly uncharted territory.”

And this week, the research journal Nature published a major study that calculated that, on our current emissions pathway, we now have only a 5 per cent chance of keeping global average temperature increases this century below the 2 degree threshold for extreme danger.

V aradkar described the plan as 'a first step', as if the climate crisis were some exotic new curio

“There is a lot of uncertainty about the future, but . . . the more optimistic scenarios that have been used in targets seem quite unlikely to occur,” the study’s lead author told the Washington Post.

By any reasonable measure, humanity now faces a full-blown global climate emergency. Even the ultra-cautious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of “severe, pervasive and irreversible” climate disruption unless drastic action was undertaken without delay.

So, that’s the scale of the problem. Ireland’s response is set out in the Government’s recently published National Mitigation Plan (NMP), the first in over a decade, which contained some 100 specific “actions”.

‘Societal transformation’

Bafflingly, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar described the NMP as “a first step”, as if the climate crisis were some exotic new curio that scientists had just recently unearthed. He did, however, correctly state that tackling this crisis would require “fundamental societal transformation”. This was the first real hint that the generational shift in Irish political leadership might be about to pay dividends.

This hope was shortlived. Minister for Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten’s long-awaited NMP turned out to be less of an action plan and more of a vague wish-list. It failed entirely to set out a costed road map for how Irish society can begin to undertake what, to succeed, will have to be the most radical transition since the foundation of the State.

Even the Government’s own Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) damned Naughten’s non-plan with faint praise. “In the absence of decisions on additional policy actions, Ireland will not achieve the national transition objective by 2050,” it noted.

Yet the CCAC’s own report conveys none of the sense of urgency that is now so evident within the international scientific community. The council comprises 11 expert members, including eight professors. While economists are in abundance, there is not a solitary member from the physical sciences.

This may help explain how the council maintains its seemingly sanguine approach to climate risk. Chairman John FitzGerald continues to somehow argue that Ireland has plenty of time to pick “cost effective” options at our leisure as we ease towards the distant 2050.

Laggards of Europe

On paper, Ireland has all the ingredients to be a world leader in climate resilience and sustainability. An island nation with a low population density, we have good land and an abundance of renewable energy potential. Our maritime climate should buffer us against the very worst of climate extremes – at least for now.

Instead, we are among the laggards of Europe. Our per capita emissions are the third-highest in the EU, and Ireland will miss its 2020 targets by a mile. In fact, our two largest-emitting sectors, agriculture and transport, are actually ramping up emissions, in flagrant breach of both legal and moral obligations.

Phil Hogan's claims on emissions are flatly contradicted by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation

We now face massive EU non-compliance fines from 2020. Rather than leading a bold national decarbonisation programme, Naughten, as “climate action” minister, has faced the unedifying task of running to Brussels to try and plead for yet more loopholes and offsets.

At one point, he reportedly threatened to stymie the EU’s adoption of the Paris Accord on climate change in a vain bid to lower Irish targets. Meanwhile, Naughten last month issued an oil drilling licence for a potentially huge (and high-risk) operation on the Porcupine Bank. Climate action and fossil fuel exploration, just like oil and water, simply don’t mix.

By 2020, agriculture will account for 45 per cent of our non-traded total national emissions. As the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed, thanks to Food Wise 2025, the industry-written national strategy dominated by beef and dairy, agricultural emissions are going up at the very time they need to be falling sharply.

Spread of misinformation

Rather than address this, elements within the agriculture industry have instead teamed up this summer with a fringe group of Irish science contrarians to promote high-profile US climate-deniers spreading misinformation about the basic science of climate change.

Fake news appears to be infectious. EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan last weekend made the extraordinary claim on RTÉ there was “no evidence whatever” that beef and dairy production contributed significantly to emissions.

This is flatly contradicted by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. It points out the global meat and dairy sectors produce more emissions than all the cars, planes, trains and ships in the world combined, while only contributing a modest share of total human calorie intake.

As long as we refuse to square up to the existential nature of the climate crunch, solutions will always seem too expensive or inconvenient.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator, and tweets @think_or_swim

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