The ins and outs of the COP21 Climate Agreement and where Ireland stands now?
It was an Irishman in the mid-1800s, one of our most successful scientists and educators John Tyndall whom first established that CO2 is a greenhouse gas – meaning that it traps heat and keeps it from escaping to outer space. By the time early twentieth century arrived it had been suggested that by releasing CO2 into the atmosphere by way of burning fossil fuels that the Earth’s climate may be altered as a consequence. Soon after, detectable greenhouse effects would be observed and as far back as the 1960’s political leaders had been warned that this may pose a real threat. Yet, political circles failed to act on such advice, and up to the present day have turned a blind eye to the problem largely in fear of regulation, impacts on the economy and because of a lack of political leadership. It is possibly true to say that money for the big fish and big corporations along with ensuring lobby group contentment has been worth more than we the people and our future, and arguably still is.
What’s the deal?
As 2015, the hottest year recorded since records began drew near to a close, nearly 200 national leaders gathered in Paris for the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP). To mark its conclusion the plenary reached a historic global agreement to collectively increase respective efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a bid to stave off ever-threatening climate change. It was hysteria and emotively energised elation that filled the conference plenary hall in Le Bourget when French foreign minister and president of the talks Laurent Fabius brought down the gavel to mark the adoption of the agreement. Summarising the agreement in short, some of the more notable content of the global deal entails for instance:
- To hold the global average temperature rise to well below 2°C but to also pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
- To have net-zero emissions within the second half of the century (i.e. any global emissions are cancelled out by uptake of atmospheric CO2 by trees and forests, soils and our oceans).
- A review mechanism every five years from 2023 whereby efforts and reduction targets will be updated and enhanced.
- To provide financial aid to vulnerable countries affected by climate change impacts (with the catch that it does not “provide a basis for any liability or compensation” – a result big fossil fuel corps and the highest carbon emitting nations will only be thrilled to see) and to help them bypass the fossil fuel stage of development straight into green and renewable technologies.
Comparatively speaking, relative to previous failed efforts of striking a unanimously agreed climate deal one could say COP21 in Paris was a success. However, others have stated that “by comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.” Ambition and the sheer scale of the challenge contrast alarmingly to real action on the ground. For instance, targeting to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels is entirely aspirational. This limitation of 1.5°C would require a massive immediate decarbonisation of our economies and simultaneous large-scale sequestration of atmospheric CO2. In fact the concept of decarbonisation was not even mentioned in the agreement, nor was there any reference to legally binding emission reductions. There also wasn’t any mention of the concept of a carbon budget which comprises a scientific framing that details a particular amount of CO2 that we can globally emit and yet still stay under the 2°C mark. Remarking on the outcome of COP21, James Hansen, a world renowned climatologist labelled it “a fraud, a fake, worthless words”.
Meanwhile in Ireland
As heatwaves scorched China, Russia, Australia, the Middle East and parts of South America in the last two years, to the people of Ireland and the UK the notion of climate change finally came home to roost at the close of 2015. The comings and goings of storm Abigail, Barney, and Clodagh were quickly forgotten, but storm Desmond made 40% more likely because of the changing climate will remain etched in the minds of many for many years to come. Desmond may well be the catalyst for change that Ireland was waiting for, but at the cost to thousands of people affected by December 2015’s flooding, the month and year when we finally may have realised that the cost of inaction in Ireland was a price too high to pay.
Now more than ever is the time for political leadership. Enda Kenny stood up in front of the plenary in Paris and stated “let us together, everybody, send out the signal that the world is waiting for, and let us not deprive our successors and their children of a real future before they are born”. Yet ironically the government are looking for a favour from the negotiating table that will give leeway to Irish agriculture despite being our highest carbon emitting sector and already constituting a third of Irish greenhouse gas emissions. If agriculture doesn’t play its part, households, businesses, transport and power generation will be burdened to pick up the slack.
The state will soon learn its fate in terms of a reduction target for 2030, one which will be more ambitious than the one we are already struggling and failing to make (i.e. 20% reduction in emissions compared to 2005 levels by 2020; we are projected to only make a 9% reduction by 2020). Failing to meet our agreed upon targets will cost the state and tax-payer potentially hundreds of millions of Euros. The Irish electorate must ensure that this becomes a priority issue as action on the ground today simply does not match the scale of the challenge.
What are we to do?
The people of Ireland, citizens of the EU and elsewhere in the world have the capacity to demand the change that we seek. Small scale bottom-up projects hold the potential to be nurtured within smaller scale settings whether it is a miniscule village or larger municipality, household or factory, farm or forest. Such scenarios can be forged from people’s own, vibrant forms of knowledge, technology, and experimentation. However it is apparent that such grassroot developments merely dot the outer margins of wider society never gaining enough momentum to play a role in the bigger picture of development. In Ireland, top-down authoritarian management and innovative grassroots movements have rarely, if ever, connected. Now more than ever these two modes of sustainable development need to intertwine by way of embracing bottom-up local action in a variety of sectors and pushing forward to expand their concepts.
Taking the lead in the Irish setting amongst others include the likes of the Transition Kerry Network, Templederry Community Wind Farm, the Aran Islands Energy Co-Op, and Cloughjordan Eco-village where concepts of community-owned energy production, energy efficiency and a regeneration of rural Ireland are at the forefront providing a glimpse into Ireland’s future. I had the pleasure of visiting Cloughjordan Eco-village and reaped nothing short of pure inspiration and motivation from those who are pioneering social change and providing a platform to achieve widespread action in terms of infusing sustainability in all walks of life, and they do this without barely a single shred of support from the state. Instead, the state prefers to throw away up to nearly €7 billion in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry every year rather than allow an indigenous energy industry to grow. Our European neighbours Scotland, Germany and Denmark are leading by example expanding their own clean energy sectors. Ireland, with all its renewable energy potential is lagging in its action, and that needs to change now and the people of Ireland need to get behind it.
Enhancing our natural carbon storage and sinks must also take priority in Ireland if we are to net-out are emissions, one of the agreed upon aims in the deal. Bogs are renowned for carbon uptake and storage and thus efforts must increase to ensure the protection of the ones we have left and to further the restoration of others. Furthermore, Ireland is set to endure more intense rainfall events like storm Desmond, and as well as carbon uptake both active bogs and native forestry can hold substantial volumes of water and contribute to flood relief. Selectively managing our uplands and floodplains in particular by planting native deep-rooting trees provides a important component of the solution if we choose to consider it, not only with a view of carbon uptake and flood alleviation but also with benefits for soil protection, small farm viability, water quality and biodiversity. The Pontbren Project in Wales is a farmer-led approach to sustainable land management in upland sites whose actions found as a result of planting mixed native trees that the soil absorbed water 67 times faster than soil under grass. Along with such upland management, increasing our lowland forestry cover especially in and around flood plains would reduce flow velocity, enhance out of bank flows (where instead of quick run-off from the land there is a slow release of water into channels from the land), and increase water storage on flood plains, resulting in an overall smaller downstream flood event if any. And yet, our ill-informed public outcry is for dredging of rivers which will increase the volume of water in our channels, the rate of flow, and the likelihood of tolling flood occurrences in downstream locales. Building higher walls will not, by itself, protect our towns either. We need flood prevention as well as flood defence and must embrace and support natural flood management strategies in the face of a changing climate.
To instigate meaningful action we need to harness the anger that was stoked during December, when families and communities bared the brunt of Storm Desmond, and in doing so hopefully trigger an appropriate top-down response and support for grassroot initiatives along with evidence-based approaches to tackling flood events. Put climate change and mitigation efforts on the agenda for the upcoming general election and lets make our politicians lead the way in the sustainable development of our country. Otherwise Ireland and its citizens will only drown in its ignorance.