Climate Change – Where does Ireland Stand?

Climate Change – Where does Ireland Stand? Irish Independent. 16th September 1999

Massive hurricanes and plagues of killer mosquitoes are often referred to in the discussion of global warming, but the implications in the medium term for Ireland are rarely mentioned. It seems clear that low-lying countries such as Bangladesh would be devastated by a small sea-level rise, but Ireland’s climate and economy could also be badly affected by global warming. Cloudier summers and higher rainfall are likely in Ireland, with implications for changes in the farming sector. Changes in the Gulf Stream could damage the fishing industry. A more pessimistic scenario could involve Icebergs drifting down from Scandinavia, and a foggy climate similar to Newfoundland taking over the country.

Global warming refers to the increase in air temperatures around the planet caused by human activity over the last century. The planet is surrounded by a protective layer of gases that form a blanket allowing humanity to survive on Earth’s surface. Industrialisation has led to greater emissions of key greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides, and this has made the blanket ‘thicker’. Activities such as cutting down forests; raising large cattle herds, and even driving down to the shops for the paper all contribute to increasing emissions, and it seems that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide will double from pre-industrial levels during the 21st century.

Under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change agreed in Kyoto in 1997, Ireland agreed to restrict emissions to an increase of 13% above 1990 levels by 2008 – 2012. Our unprecedented economic growth in recent years has meant that we have massively exceeded these targets already. Many reports are being written on how best to meet our responsibilities, but it is clear that early action is essential, if we are to play our part in honouring the agreement. Given that we were among the few countries that were allowed to increase our emissions, there is a moral imperative on Ireland not to exceed the generous targets that we were permitted. However, Ireland has scored badly in several crucial areas. The Government promised to plant larger areas of forestry to act as a ‘sink’ for carbon dioxide emissions, but we have fallen behind in reaching targets. It also stated that there would be massive improvements in public transport, to attract people out of their cars, but haggling over whether to place Luas underground or overground has meant years of delays in a system that should have opened this year. New roads have spawned more traffic which gives rise to more greenhouse gas emissions.

Looking ahead, it’s important to look at where real improvements could be made in reducing our contribution to global warming. So far, little has been achieved, despite the weight of reports published by Government departments. A better public transport system would mean less cars on the road. Replacing the Moneypoint coal-fired power station with a combined cycle gas-fired power plant would yield large benefits in the power sector, but so far the government appears to have concentrated on the issue of deregulation within the industry. Instead of giving passive support for green fuels, there should be a mandatory procurement of electricity from sources such as wind turbines, bio-mass, and small hydro-electric plants.

Changing from oil to gas central heating can reduce greenhouse gas emissions at home . High tech heating controls which measure and anticipate outside and inside temperatures can reduce household heating bills. Ensuring that the attic has a thick layer of fibreglass insulation, and that the hot water cylinder has a lagging jacket is essential. Choosing an energy efficient fridge or washing machine, and not using the ‘boil-wash’ option can reduce energy demand, and emissions.

In the agricultural sector, a recent report from the Department of the Environment referred rather delicately to the problem of ‘emteric fermentation from ruminant animals’. Put simply, flatulent cows are a problem. Changes in feed practices, and a shift away from livestock to tillage would reduce emissions. A tax on fertiliser, rather than a subsidy would also help to meet the Kyoto targets. More tree-planting can help absorb carbon dioxide gases

Transport emissions have soared over the last ten years, and the car is the main culprit. Instead of encouraging commuters to drive longer and longer distances to work in our cities and towns, we need to promote more sustainable practices. The recent Strategic Planning Guidelines for the Dublin Area are a step towards achieving this. Strong land use and planning policies encouraging people to live in well-planned towns instead of commuting by car are required. Planning for family life in cities with parks, playgrounds and affordable housing readily available will discourage the shift to commuting from rural areas. Cycling and walking mean lower emissions. Providing tax breaks for low emission vehicles such as the innovative two person Swatch/ Mercedes car would reduce CO2 gases. If people are facing the long commute, providing decent rail services, such as re-opening Navan-Dublin and Tuam-Galway rail links would help Ireland to reach target levels set at Kyoto. Road pricing and the use of green taxes such as a penny per litre petrol tax could be used to subsidise public transport services.

Ireland has scored badly in our efforts to reach the targets established by the UN at Kyoto. To be fair, many other countries have also failed to make the grade. Instead of commissioning more reports the Government should act on the advice it has already received. Ireland should lead the way as a model in sustainability by curtailing greenhouse gas emissions. If we do not meet targets soon, there may well be penalties imposed on us at European level.

First published Irish Independent. 16th September 1999, page last updated 9th January 2018