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Op Ed: Grasping the nettle of climate change
Dealing with climate change is hard, pretending it isn’t makes it harder. Ireland must take its environmental commitments seriously.
The warming of our planet is unequivocally caused by the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil, which emit gasses that trap the sun’s heat in our atmosphere. Our climate is changing and it is changing faster at present than any decade in the past one thousand years. Reducing this impact requires us to find cleaner ways to heat our homes, fuel our cars, generate electricity and use our land.
Last month the Citizens’ Assembly met to discuss how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change, a feat which if accomplished would bring economic prosperity through the provision of employment in the renewable energy and bioeconomy sectors and offer co-benefits such as cleaner air, reduced illnesses and improved energy security. Unfortunately, far from being a leader in climate change, Ireland is not even a follower.
We sell an image of ‘green’ Ireland abroad but our environmental scorecard tells a different story. We have one of the highest reliance’s on oil and imported fossil fuels in Europe and are one of the few EU countries likely to miss all our clean energy targets. Coupled with this, over the past number of years we have rolled back on ambition for electric cars, ocean energy and renewable heat.
Ireland does have some successes that can be learned from and replicated. Over the past 10 years we have significantly reduced the emissions of new cars, and we have made strong progress in cleaner electricity generation by switching from oil to gas generators and installing wind energy. This year about a quarter of Ireland’s electricity will come from wind energy alone. However, we need to ensure that these successes are replicated in other areas of the economy, particularly for the areas outside of electricity generation such as oil use in heat and transport, which account for the bulk of the energy we use each day in Ireland.
Climate change is an extraordinary policy challenge but is also a nettle that needs to be grasped. Difficult choices and interventions lie ahead in how we produce energy for our homes, businesses and cars. A challenge is that today many renewable energy technologies are more expensive than their fossil fuel counterparts. This means that subsidies and financial supports need to be considered. Cost saving measures such as insulating homes and using less energy require social buy-in and leadership. So while the technologies and conceptual pathways to a low carbon future exist, the real challenge is in the implementation and financing of publically and politically acceptable solutions. The age-old question of where the money comes from, who pays, and how much, needs to be answered.
However, consider the numerous opportunities that Ireland does have to take action on climate change: Rural Ireland can contribute to producing sustainable fuels and renewable gas from farmland that is not suitable or profitable for farming. This will diversify the options for farming communities struggling to maintain services and sustain young populations. We have enormous potential to use less energy in heating our homes, providing cosier and healthier living environments for an ageing population and alleviating some of the pressure on an ailing health system. We can reduce our exposure to energy geopolitics and deploy more renewable energy like wind to reduce our annual €6billion energy import bill. We also need to examine healthier lifestyles and look to reduce the one million tonnes of food that we waste each year in Ireland.
None of these approaches are easy and will require strong political and social commitment. A starting point for this process is taking stock of policies to date and seeing how we can actually deliver on them.
So dealing with climate change is hard, but pretending it isn’t just makes it harder. Even talking about Ireland becoming a global leader in climate action seems premature when we currently reside at the bottom of environmental performance tables. The message of being ‘a leader’ greatly oversimplifies and underestimates the challenges ahead for us all and suggests that no barriers exist. Economic barriers do exist and difficult societal choices lie ahead.
But at a broader level, if we are serious about tackling climate change then the day will come when we will have to move beyond technical solutions and we will have to ask the deeper questions about our lifestyles, our patterns of consumption, our behaviour and which new technologies and infrastructure we will accept into our lives and into our localities. This will be the real test of leadership in tackling climate change.
Dr Paul Deane is a research fellow at MaREI, the Environmental Research Institute in University College Cork
This article first appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm
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