Societal consensus key to Ireland’s climate challenge

We need to change radically our engagement with climate action

May 27th, 2019: Not only are the pollutants we generate contributing to the climate catastrophe we are hurtling towards, they are also costing us cold hard cash every single day.

 

This is an unprecedented time for climate policy in Ireland. The electorate wants the political system to deliver on climate action and at the same time the Government is finalising an ambitious plan, due for publication shortly, to tackle climate disruption. This level of focus was unimaginable even as recently as six months ago.

So what do we need to do? Two key suggestions are to build societal consensus on climate action and to face up to the scale of the challenge.

In terms of building consensus, the Irish public are now actively engaging with climate action and we must find ways to tap into this positive goodwill. This will require new approaches in how institutions operate, in policy, regulation and financial incentives. This is not going to be easy and will require some difficult discussions.

Some discussions among climate action lobbyists focus on frightening people into action, presenting stark, apocalyptic futures unless we act

We need to change the narrative – and in particular the tendency to focus on attributing blame. There is a perspective that the key is to change people’s behaviour – if only people would do the ‘right’ thing and purchase the ‘right’ things and support rather than object to the ‘right’ projects.

Some discussions among climate action lobbyists focus on frightening people into action, presenting stark, apocalyptic futures unless we act. Among some citizen and community groups there’s a sense that deliberate obstacles are being put in place by business interests and certain State agencies. This is not helping to build the necessary societal consensus required to enable genuine climate action in Ireland.

Political consensus

The positive recent experiences in building political consensus can point the way to constructive exchange of ideas between different groups.

The Constitutional Convention and subsequently the Citizens’ Assembly showed us a new way of doing politics. We added a new and complementary deliberative and participative form of democracy to our traditional representative politics. We can also draw on previous social partnership methods for developing policy agreements on welfare, education, health and employment issues.

Building on these experiences, one option is to develop a series of targeted, deliberative processes to bring together representatives of citizens, community groups, businesses, unions and State agencies. The focus would be to explore, challenge and understand each other’s perspectives and work together to try to identify pathways for collective and collaborative climate action.

The scale of the climate change challenge in Ireland is huge. We have a significantly larger greenhouse gas exposure than most other European Union member states and this requires us look at all options available for mitigation. However, we all have our own preferences and our own red-line no-go options. This makes it difficult to mobilise action at the scale required.

It would be much easier if there was a silver-bullet solution, but unfortunately this is not the case. In the past we have made great progress in some specific areas, but we have failed overall, because of our narrow focus. There is a real danger that we will continue only to make good progress in some areas. Complacency can be a significant barrier to success. Blinding ourselves to core elements of the solution that we do not like will ensure continued failure.

Image from the climate protest on Friday, at Merrion Square, Dublin. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times
Young people protest during the Climate Strike event in March at Merrion Square, Dublin. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

We have made and continue to make significant strides in some areas. We are leading worldwide in how much wind-generated electricity we integrate into our grid. We have improved our building regulations to ensure that new buildings have a much improved energy performance and we have also demonstrated how existing buildings can be made more comfortable, healthier and have a significantly reduced energy bill and carbon footprint.

However, there are, unfortunately, a larger number of areas that we have neglected, that we find difficult to discuss, and hence have made very little progress.

Most of our discussions on energy focus on electricity, which represents just a fifth of energy use

We need to reduce consumption, in particular wasteful consumption. One of many examples is food waste – estimated to represent about a third of food supply, most of which is avoidable. We also need to significantly increase our efforts on efficiency in our current buildings, our transport systems and our manufacturing and agricultural practices. Grappling with growing demands for freight transport, air travel and agriculture is difficult, but essential.

One challenge is the treatment of bioenergy, which we have failed to even discuss in a mature way. Bioenergy is sometimes discussed as a single form of renewable energy, even though it comes from a range of biological sources, including manure, wood processing waste, used cooking oil, tallow, forest thinnings, rapeseed, grass and wood.

One particular benefit of bioenergy is its potential contribution to providing us with low- or zero-carbon solutions for heating and transport, which account for most of the energy we use. However, most of our discussions on energy focus on electricity, which represents just a fifth of energy use. This share will increase slowly as we use more electricity for heating and transport, but we continue to neglect the parts of heat and transport

Climate action in agriculture is also a topic we are struggling with. Reducing greenhouse emissions in agriculture is difficult because we don’t have the same technology solutions as we do for our energy systems. We can make changes in our diet, in animal diet and in agricultural practices. We can also grow more trees that absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. In addition, we can use agricultural waste to generate biogas as a transport fuel through circular economy processes.

Polarisation

Discussions on climate action in agriculture tend to polarise around two perspectives. First, we need to reduce agricultural activity in order to reduce emissions. Second, if we do reduce agricultural activity, it is likely to increase emissions, since the relatively low-carbon produce that we export will be replaced by higher-carbon food produce.

Both of these perspectives are legitimate but lead to very different outcomes, which makes it difficult to move forward to action. It is clear, however, from our analysis in MaREI, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre, of the energy transition that meeting our future low-carbon ambitions without reducing the size of the cattle herd will be significantly more challenging.

There is an urgency in Ireland to radically change our engagement with climate action. If we could build societal consensus, while at the same time facing up to the extent of the challenge, we would have a great opportunity to see transformative improvements in terms of the environment, health and the well-being of all our citizens.

Brian Ó Gallachóir is director of MaREI, the SFI research centre for energy, climate and marine research, and professor of energy engineering at University College Cork

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