THIS month last year, the historic international agreement on tackling climate change was signed in Paris, but it was only in November that Dáil Éireann got around to ratifying it, just as the new President-elect of the United States, Donald Trump, was contemplating America not honouring the deal, glibly dismissing the science of climate change as a hoax. This would be a huge setback for those who are rightly concerned about the future of our fragile planet, especially given the amount of effort that was involved in agreeing the global deal in the first place.
The primary objective of the Paris Agreement is to get almost 200 counties to take steps towards limiting global warming to under 2°C of an increase or, even better, 1.5°C. The talking has been done but appropriate actions are still needed to match the words.
Delegates attending last month’s 22nd UN climate change talks in Morocco (COP 22) were worried that if the United States – which is second only to China in terms of greenhouse gas emissions – reneged on the deal agreed in Paris, it could discourage other major players from doing their bit and, thereby, undermine the whole process.
In Ireland, our emissions have been increasing across most sectors, which will make it difficult to reach our reduction targets for 2020. During last year, significant increases were recorded across all the main sectors, agriculture being the largest with 33% of the total emissions, followed by transport (19.8%) and energy industries (19.7%).
Agricultural emissions increased by 1.5% because the abolition of the EU milk quotas in April 2015 led to dairy farmers expanding their herds and methane emissions from cattle add significantly to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, the increase of 5.1% in residential emissions due to the greater use of fossil fuels, which have come down a lot in price, during a colder winter was the biggest offender.
Emissions from transport were up for the third year in a row – by 4.2% in 2015 – as our economic recovery continues with more cars, vans and lorries on our roads. At this rate of going, Ireland will be lucky to achieve more than a third of the 20% emissions reduction target we committed to, relative to 2005 levels, with the European Union by 2020.
This is completely out of order and, instead of making lame excuses, the government needs to tackle climate change in meaningful ways, especially given that the World Meteorological Service has stated that 2016 will be the hottest year on record. In fairness to the agri industry, some tangible steps are being taken to quantify and mitigate its carbon footprint as far as possible, especially in the context of the ambitious Food Harvest 2025 increased production targets – although these may have to be scaled back because of the uncertainties brought about by Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
Carbon taxes have not discouraged the use of fossil fuels in either industry or on the domestic front, as they have become relatively cheaper in recent years. The roll-out of alternative renewable energy sources is just not capturing the public imagination and seems to be continually embroiled in one controversy after another.
Emissions from transport are mainly due to the amount of vehicles on our roads – mostly with single occupancy – as people are commuting in and out of cities that they cannot afford to live in to their workplaces. Trying to get them to use public transport instead is a lost cause because not everywhere is served by it at the times it is needed most, however the rail service we do have needs to be made more attractive to people to use and let what they spend on public transport to get to work be offset against their tax bills.
Back on our busy roads, incentives for people using electric, hybrid and low-emission vehicles generally need to be stepped up and rewards should be made available for people car pooling, such as reducing or waiving tolls at peak commuter times for vehicles carrying four adults, as we have seen in other European countries. There is no single magic bullet to solve all the problems, but a variety of different actions can collectively make a difference
The government also needs to get back on track with financial incentives for the retro-fitting of older houses with insulation, which reduces energy bills and emissions and creates some very productive employment. Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten needs to quickly up the ante with practical steps so that Ireland can start making up lost ground in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.