Climate Change – We Have So Far Failed The Test


Senator Grace O’Sullivan, Green Party

This debate asks us if we’re ‘facing up’ to the challenge of climate change. In other words, do our deeds match our words? I would say we have quite a way go still on putting the ‘action’ into climate action, as our new Department is entitled. Nowhere was this better illustrated than at the recent Paris climate talks where Enda Kenny appeared, like a lazy student who’d not opened a book all year, to ask the teacher, in this case the rest of the world, for an extension on his overdue essay.

The Level of Urgency
Special pleading has often defined the Irish approach to climate policy, with requests for exemptions and derogations where innovative policy proposals and genuine action should be. Yesterday was the hottest day of what has so far been the hottest year on record in Ireland. We are seeing the effects of climate change already in changing weather patterns and disruption to natural systems. If we’re asking ‘do each of us accept the scientific evidence?’ – which is vast in scale – reaffirmed almost every month or year with new datasets that show a problem, for the most part, that’s getting worse – then yes, thankfully, all parties in the Oireachtas, key stakeholders like the IFA and the vast majority of Irish citizens have approached the problem from a rational, evidence-based perspective. But if we delve a bit deeper, really what we’re discussing today is do each of us approach the problem of climate change from the same starting point? The same vantage point? Is there a consensus on the level of urgency required to counter runaway climate change?

The Green Party is back in the Oireachtas, and determined to put this issue front and centre once again. Ours is a vision of positive change, of grasping the opportunities as well as the nettle, to create a new economy that can allow us to sustain our citizens and prosper long into the future. New methods of generating energy, new ways of farming, of fishing and of forestry, new transport systems and new ways of building and heating our homes. We believe we can create a better future for everyone and address some of the most serious problems in our society if we seize on the chances and lead the fight for a more sustainable future. That, for me, is the key to approaching our climate problem.

The Scale of the Threat
I live in rural Ireland, from a business and farming background. I come from a small coastal community that has seen a lot of change in my lifetime. I see how the way in which our economy has evolved has threatened the livelihoods of those in the fishing industry. How the large-scale has won out over the sustainable. When I left Ireland in the early 1980s, I saw this on an even bigger scale. In 1986 when I visited Antarctica aboard the MV Greenpeace, people were only just starting to talk about the disintegration of the Larsen Ice Shelf. The first portion of it – Larsen A – was gone by 1995; in 2002 a portion of Larsen B, almost the size of Leinster and Connaught combined, dramatically broke off into the sea, a process which continues today. During my time in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, I got to appreciate the scale of the threat that rising sea levels represents, from those most affected by it.

Time and again, I’ve seen how, once the scale of a threat is realised, a failure to take small, but essential, steps at the outset to insure against the future disaster has made the steps necessary now much, much larger and harder. Failure to meet our EU renewable energy target of 16% by 2020 will result in fines of €150 million per percentage point missed – last year we had only reached 8%. For me, the key test of whether we are facing up to our climate challenge is this – are we willing to accept the need for corrective actions now to stave off a tragedy of the commons in ten, twenty or fifty years? And the challenge is this: taking whatever steps necessary to ensure that the average global near-surface temperature does not rise by more than 1.5 degrees.

The Two Biggest Polluters
Our collective response in Ireland, I’m afraid to say, has so far failed that test. When the Taoiseach went to the Climate Summit in Paris in December last year and publicly pleaded a special case for Ireland we essentially were admitting to the world that Ireland’s response is conditional, is going to be slow and does not recognise the urgency with which action is required. That claim was made due to our unique emissions profile. Like New Zealand and Lithuania, Ireland’s emissions have a distinctly ‘green’ tinge, with agriculture projected to make up almost half (47%) of our non-Emission Trading Scheme emissions by 2020. Much has been made of the contribution of beef and dairy production to this. It’s true that much progress had been made – emissions declined slightly in the last few years but are now back on the rise again, and steeply. The EPA estimates, based on Teagasc research, that if we meet the overarching objectives of Food Wise 2025, emissions in Agriculture will rise by as much as 7% by 2020. That includes a growth in the dairy cow herd of 16% on 2016 levels, and a growth in nitrogen fertilizer use of 21% in the same period. Transport emissions are expected to increase by 16% (1) in the period 2014 – 2020. However, the EPA estimates that they will only rise by 10% should we succeed in reaching the 10% renewable fuel use and deploy 50,000 electric vehicles on our roads. Currently, we have less than a thousand. DART Underground, the one project that would have taken thousands of cars off Dublin’s roads, has been delayed indefinitely.

So enormous increases are projected in our two biggest polluting sectors of agriculture and transport, accounting together for 76% of emissions in 2020 (2); and official Government policy at the moment shows very little appetite for limiting these increases; rather, they are fuelling them. To put that into the context of our international obligations, the EPA also estimates that our non-European Emission Trading Scheme emissions will be between 6% and 11% below 2005 levels in 2020. That is well below the 20% mandatory reduction target, and leaves us potentially liable for vast EU fines.

We need to be serious but also original and creative
All this calls for a new approach to climate policy in Ireland. We as Greens support the EU’s harmonised approach to energy and climate, and agree that such policies should be tackled together with our EU partners. What has to stop is our slavish adherence to the letter of these laws, while trying to avoid the spirit of them at every turn. We have to better balance the need to feed our own population, support a valuable and sustainable export market and our obligations to lessen the impact our way of life has on the long-term viability of life on earth. It would be the ultimate irony were we to endanger our farming way of life through the changes wrought by increased drought, more violent storms and flooding and other disruption to our natural weather patterns that have made Ireland so uniquely suited to the type of agriculture we have. We saw the cruel effects of such disruption in the 2013 fodder crisis, something that wreaked havoc in farming communities across the country. We need to be serious in our approach to the challenge of climate change, but we also need to be original and creative. Recently, I attended the launch of the latest report from the Climate-Smart Agriculture leadership forum, a joint initiative of the Institute of International and European Affairs and the Royal Dublin Society. The report gave a lot of food for thought on how we might tailor an approach to the climate crisis that both recognised Ireland’s role as an over polluter, while also maximising our potential in a newly structured rural economy.

The report notes also that Ireland’s island status offers us both challenges and opportunities for the future. Coming from a marine background, this is an area of particular interest to me. The world’s oceans are by far the biggest store of greenhouse gasses; indeed their absorption of about 26% of all we have produced to date is the only reason we are still here to talk about the problem of climate change at all! But since 2000, that rate of absorption has slowed, and rising temperatures and oceanic acidification means that dumping carbon dioxide into the seas as we do our plastic waste is no longer an option.

Government is reactive, not pro-active
The seas around us can still help us in other ways though. Ireland has always been a maritime nation, a nation where fish and seafood products have played an important role in sustaining our population. We are only now considering new ways in which we can seize on the potential of the waters around us, such as truly sustainable aquaculture, with stable and low impact feed systems and proper controls. We need a fisheries system that recognises the science and prizes the small and the independent over the large and the industrial. Such expansions can contribute to a greater share of our diet and help lower the impact of other less efficient sources of food.

We’ve just emerged in Ireland from a severe economic crisis, albeit with a recovery that’s not equally seen in all parts of the country. I understand that there are people who will resist that message. Those struggling with low incomes, farmers who are fighting off increasing threats to their livelihoods; businesses finally looking towards expansion; ultimately we go out and work in order to make lives better for ourselves and crucially for our children. The reason I’m standing here saying this is because, as it stands, we are going to hand a crisis to our children that by 2050 will dwarf the banking crisis in scale and effect.

Consider this: Policy change in many countries is hard because of path-dependence – where decisions made in the past tend to lock future governments into a specific course of action. It’s hard to make big changes. In Ireland especially. Government is reactive, not proactive; tactical, not strategic. We sign up to UN climate deals and EU climate policies with one hand, while the other hand push for unconstrained expansion of our industry and agriculture, with no thought to the long term effects.

Because of this, I fear are heading for the worst of both worlds. We take no steps now to help meet our targets; we fail; we are fined hundreds of millions of euro and only then is there political will to make any positive changes. Of course, the economic cost in the future of mitigating against climate change is going to be far higher than now. So we are essentially fined twice.

Another way is possible – I have an ambition that we can create a new, prosperous economy based on sustainable agriculture and aquaculture and fisheries, an integrated, decentralised, renewable and innovative energy system and a sustainable transport network that works for commuters, creates better public spaces and doesn’t damage our health or our climate. Only when climate considerations are embedded in every single aspect of our governance can we make these opportunities a reality.

We need a collaborative approach
The Green Party has learnt over the past 20 years that trying to lecture or frighten people into action on climate change has not and cannot work. We need and are committed to a collaborative approach that, instead of telling them what to do, engages citizens and asks them to help us solve these challenges together. We want to share the sense of opportunity inherent in this challenge.
In the past, Greens and farmers may have had a challenging relationship, but I am hoping for a change in that climate in the future. In my view, farmers are the custodians of the land, and in that spirit I wish to extend my full support for opening and maintaining a dialogue with Joe [IFA president Joe Healy] and others to help forge a new path of prosperity and sustainability for Ireland and the rest of the world.

(1) Greenhouse Gas Emission Projections to 2020, Irish Environmental Protection Agency
(2) Ibid

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