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Climate change glossary: Do you know your carbon footprint from your carbon budget?

It’s easy to get lost in the terminology around climate. Here’s a quick run-through

Do you know your carbon budget from your carbon footprint? Image: iStock

Do you know your carbon budget from your carbon footprint? Image: iStock

 

As we work towards the climate change goals outlined in the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees – preferably to 1.5 degrees – it is important to know your climate change terminology. We are all busy and it’s easy to get lost in the vast amount of related terms. The glossary below is a guide to some of the key terms.

Renewable Energy Sources

Renewable Energy Sources, also known as RES, are sources of energy that are continuously replenished. When it comes to climate change it is important to consider renewable sources of energy for future sustainable production. These include wind energy, solar energy, biomass energy, hydropower and geothermal power.

Hydro and wind energy are the most common forms of renewable electricity in Ireland, which paves the way in wind, coming second only to Denmark in wind energy production (SEAI,2018). Wind energy can be temperamental and is difficult to synchronise with the electricity grid. As such Ireland has become a world leader in technology as Eirgrid has led the way in pioneering and developing technology to maximise output from wind farms.

Solar energy is one of the most effective energy sources available to us today. The amount of solar energy available varies due to seasonality and geographic location. It is now a popular way to supplement energy use in everyday households.

Biomass energy refers to organic material from plants or animals that absorbs energy from the sun. The most common materials used to produce this type of energy are plants, wood and waste.

Geothermal energy comes from the earth. There are two kinds: shallow and deep. It can be harnessed by drilling wells to pump hot water or steam to a power plant. This energy is used for heating and electricity.

Being an island, the future of wind and hydro energy production in Ireland looks bright, as we can harvest the natural elements provided to us.

Carbon footprint

A carbon footprint is the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) generated by an individual or organisation. According to the World Bank, the global average annual carbon footprint per person in 2014 was about 5 tonnes CO2eq (carbon dioxide equivalent) .

Food accounts for 10-30 per cent of a household’s carbon footprint, typically a higher portion in lower-income households. Ireland’s carbon emissions are 20 per cent higher than the EU average as of 2017 (SEAI, 2018).The average amount of CO2 that power stations emit into the atmosphere to produce one unit of energy (1 kWh).

Ireland burns more fossil fuels than most EU counterparts. Countries such as Norway use methods such as hydro and district heating to offset their carbon footprint. France meets most of its energy demand using nuclear, a much cleaner and more efficient energy that is often overlooked and disliked for its reputation of being unsafe. One of the things that makes Ireland unique is it’s very large carbon footprint as a result of agriculture. In 2018 agriculture was responsible for 33 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland (SEAI, 2018). Most of this comes from livestock and the use of fertilisers in farming.

Large cement factories and refineries also make up a large portion of carbon emitters. One way in which the EU and other government entities have sought to offset greenhouse gas emissions by large energy and technical service providers is through the use of carbon shares or carbon credits. Companies can buy and sell shares in order to meet their annual CO2 emission quotas. The aim of these credits is for companies to strive to meet their carbon emission goals and therefore have shares left over that they can use for profit.

Some of the most common ways to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint is to adopt a vegetarian diet, reduce use of transportation, decrease water and energy use and assess the carbon footprint of the products that we consume.

Mitigation

Climate change mitigation involves reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to prevent global warming by adapting and changing our policies, behaviour and processes to live more sustainably. Mitigation is known as being easy to explain and difficult to accomplish. It involves any actions we take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Switching to low carbon energy sources and planting or regenerating native forests are two ways that we can engage in mitigation.

From retrofitting buildings to using renewable energy resources efficiently, mitigation involves the use of the latest technologies. Carbon capture, storage technologies and sequestering carbon in offshore sites are some example of climate mitigation in action. Actions associated with climate change mitigation involve assessing what systems require improvements and what management is necessary to put these improvements in place.

Mitigation also involves reducing our reliance on current resources that produce greenhouse gases, such as burning fossil fuels. Effective mitigation allows time for natural ecosystems to repair themselves and enables pathways towards sustainable processes to stabilise greenhouse gas levels.

By adopting mitigation strategies we can make transformational shifts to reduce emissions and support a holistic approach to sustainable policy developments.

Biogenic methane

Biogenic methane is produced from biological (plant and animal) sources. In comparison methane comes primarily from three major sources – fossil fuels, waste and agriculture. This is carbon recently derived from carbon dioxide (CO2) present in the atmosphere. When the methane is emitted, it causes additional warming (as methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2). Methane is a short-lived greenhouse gas. It degrades in the atmosphere over decades.

Once in equilibrium, it can continue to be emitted at a stable rate without increasing its concentration in the atmosphere. All methane molecules behave the same in the atmosphere but they can come from two different types of sources: biological and fossil. Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere. The biogenic carbon cycle is an important natural process that centres on plants’ ability to sequester carbon. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants can remove CO2 from the atmosphere and deposit harmful carbon into the ground while releasing oxygen into the atmosphere. However, as cattle digest the plants and belch out methane they return the sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere.

Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming in the near term. At least 25 per cent of today’s warming is driven by methane from human actions. Climate stabilisation requires global methane emission cuts of 24-47per cent by 2050 compared with 2010.

Sustainable Development Goals

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals were established in 2015 by the United Nations to guarantee future peace and prosperity for humanity. They cover a range of different areas, such as ending hunger around the world, gender equality, climate protection and clean energy for everyone.

Goal 13 specifically focuses on climate action. The UN has outlined a number of key actions that can help countries to achieve this goal, including strengthening our capacity to climate related hazards, integrating climate change measures into policies, improving education, implementing the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and promoting mechanisms that help to raise capacity for effective climate change planning and management.

The 17 goals are as follows: no poverty, zero hunger, good health and wellbeing, quality education, gender equality, clean water and sanity, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, industry, innovation and infrastructure, sustainable cities and communities, responsible consumption, climate action, life below water, life on land, peace, justice and strong institutions, partnerships for the goals.

A carbon budget

The carbon budget will be given towards climate targets here in Ireland and divided into five-year blocks: 2021-2025, 2025-2030 and a provisional budget for 2030-2035. It sets a limit on how much greenhouse gases Ireland can emit over a fixed period. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill sets out how carbon budgets will be set in Ireland. The Climate Change Advisory Council will set out the carbon budget, and government will allocate what is required per sector.

It is associated with a more structured approach to achieving climate change goals as set out in the Climate Bill. As part of the climate action plans, government will liaise with each sector to identify how much they can spend out of the carbon budget over the period of time. These action plans will also outline what tools, resources and mechanisms are necessary to ensure that each sector works within that budget.

When setting the carbon budget here in Ireland, each sector will need to consider how to have an even spread of financial support throughout each month.

In Ireland the carbon budget will be set by law.