........become more frequent and more dangerous and large parts of our planet could be uninhabitable.
There is, however, real hope in the growing number of people from across society who are speaking up for urgent climate action. The public are often ahead of politicians when it comes to recognising the threat we face, caring about the environment, thinking creatively and challenging “business as usual”.
As leading climate scientist Professor John Sweeney recently noted: “Young people in particular can see through the fog much more clearly than somebody who is beset and pestered by vested interest groups.”
The past 10 years have been the hottest in 100,000 years, so what we do with the next 10 really matters.
The Government is currently developing Ireland’s first two five-year carbon budgets, which will set out the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions, measured in carbon equivalent megatonnes, that we can add to the atmosphere between now and 2030.
Ireland doesn’t have a great track record on climate, so there’s a lot of catching up to do.
Unfortunately, the carbon budgets as initially proposed don’t match up to UN standards, fail to deliver climate justice and may even fall short of the commitments made in the Programme for Government.
The good news is, those budgets are not finalised and there is room to improve them if we act quickly.
The public consultation, open until next Tuesday, is a chance for anyone who cares about these issues to call for stronger, better and earlier climate action.
A 2019 report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) calculated that a global average annual emission reduction of 7.6pc would be required to give the world a 66pc chance of staying below a 1.5C temperature increase.
Ireland, as a wealthy country, should be achieving more than that average. We certainly shouldn’t be delivering less. Yet in his recent presentation to the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, Professor Barry McMullin of Dublin City University noted that the current proposed carbon budgets of 495 megatonnes until 2030 are cumulatively equivalent to an average annual reduction rate of less than 6pc. That’s a lot less than that UNEP average of 7.6 pc, and it also seems to fall short of the Programme for Government commitment to “an average 7pc per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030”.
Prof McMullin estimates that to meet the 7.6pc average, the carbon budgets should be reduced by 41 megatonnes, while meeting the 7pc promise would mean a reduction of 27 megatonnes. These small additional reductions would still be less than our “fair share” of global effort.
Under our climate legislation, Environment Minister Eamon Ryan is required to produce budgets that are “consistent with” Article 2 of the Paris Agreement, including the obligation “to reflect equity and the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances”.
As a country with historically high emission rates, Ireland should be taking greater responsibility and recognising our climate debt to those countries that have done least to cause the crisis yet suffer the worst impacts. The first carbon budgets should also be accompanied by new and additional climate funding for developing countries.
We can do better on both climate justice and just transition by delivering action that is fast and fair, along with early and ambitious public investment. Yet the draft budgets postpone real progress until the second budget period of 2026-2030.
Prof Sweeney has called on the Government to treat this like the emergency it is by taking urgent actions in the next 18 months. As we make difficult choices, we certainly can’t afford any spin or accountancy tricks. That’s why the minister needs to guarantee that when we measure the achievement of each carbon budget, we will only include emission reductions or carbon “removals”measurable within the time period of that budget.
We need that clear commitment because there have been some ambiguous signals around potential “forward counting” on forestry.
Trees planted now will mainly sequester carbon after 2030. Given the long-term nature of that result, it is appropriate to offer additional incentives for “the right tree in the right place”. But that cannot include premature counting of carbon storage that hasn’t happened yet. The climate doesn’t negotiate, and messing with the facts would deeply damage public trust.
As Professor Kevin Anderson recently noted: “The carbon budget challenges Ireland faces today stem in part from its own choice to essentially ignore three decades of clear scientific analysis and advice.”
Published in the Irish Independent, Sat 5th Feb 2022