Waking up to climate change

 

Slowly but surely, the world is waking up to the risks and dangers of climate change. Whatever about Republican farmers in Kansas doggedly holding to a belief that the drought they’ve been suffering is part of a “natural cycle”, the penny has dropped elsewhere that this is a problem that can only be solved by working towards achieving the goal of a zero-carbon economy. Even yesterday, the European commission was meeting in Brussels to consider proposals for 2030 climate targets to cut carbon emissions by as much as 40 per cent – double the level already agreed for 2020.

The commission also knows that action must be taken to rescue the European emissions trading regime, which is practically dead in the water due to an accumulation of unused allowances by power generators and other major users of energy. On Tuesday, the price of carbon fell by 20 per cent to less than €3 per tonne because of growing doubts that the current regime can be sustained.

It would need to be €30 per tonne in order to encourage a major switch to renewables; if this cannot be achieved through market mechanisms, then a hefty tax on carbon should be seriously considered.

One straw in the wind was this week’s decision by Drax, the UK energy company that supplies 7 per cent of Britain’s electricity, to convert half of its generating capacity from coal to wood pellets and other biomass materials. This radical move is designed to avoid new levies by the British government on coal-burning and thereby protect its future profits; shares in Drax rose by 6 per cent in value on the strength of the company’s announcement, showing that investors are now attuned to the need for carbon-sensitive policies. Closer to home, the ESB would do well to follow suit, sooner rather than later.

The Government has delayed publication of the heads of a Climate Change Bill here on foot of complaints by An Taisce, among others, that it would be “toothless” without firm targets to cut carbon emissions, sector by sector. Regrettably, there is no indication that Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan favours setting sectoral targets and, indeed, the final report he commissioned from the National Economic and Social Council avoided even mentioning such targets as a means of reducing emissions from agriculture, transport and other “non-traded” sectors of the economy.

There has been a clamour from Sinn Féin and other Opposition deputies, notably Catherine Murphy (Independent), for a Bill that would more closely reflect the recommendations made two years ago by the Oireachtas climate change sub-committee in 2010 – which were, incidentally, supported by Fine Gael and Labour at the time. This would include establishing an independent commission to ensure that targets are actually met.

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