2015. The hottest year on record. In the West of Ireland summer temperatures finally arrived in September. In Dublin Christmas dog walks around the park went coat free. Conned by the unseasonably balmy winter the daffodils stood proudly in bloom in December. In the same month, battered by rain from Storms Clodagh, Desmond and Eva, the Shannon floods mirrored the scale and damage of 2009. The likelihood of floods this large occurring in a year are an astonishingly low 1%.
What on earth is going on? The Earth is warming at a rate not seen for over a thousand years. Our activities have precipitated steeply rising air and ocean temperatures. According to NASA global temperatures have risen by 0.8oC since before the Industrial Revolution. Scientists the world over are now agreeing that a 2oC rise on pre-Industrial temperatures will cause climate chaos. That leaves a margin of 1.2oC. The evidence suggesting that our climate is changing has been described as unequivocal.
Would you notice a 2oC change laid back on a deckchair in the Marbella? Hardly.
Yet, warmer air temperature is decimating sea ice in the Arctic and ice sheets covering land in Antarctica and Greenland. Sea levels are rising dangerously due to the increased volume of water and because heat is causing water to expand. Oceans are absorbing extra heat and becoming more acidic, killing coral reefs. The vibrancy of our diverse natural world is under threat like never before: 1 in 6 species could face climate related extinction.
Enter a double glazed world
A total of 1,300 independent scientists have concluded with more than 90% probability that gases, released through our polluting activities, have double glazed the lower atmosphere. The greenhouse encasing our planetary home is inhibiting heat escape. Just as its near impossible not to sweat when walking or cycling in waterproof trousers, the Earth is struggling to catch a break from the Sun’s heat. This is not part of an inter-millenia cycle; while it is getting hotter close to the Earth’s surface, the atmosphere closer to the Sun is in fact cooling.
NASA attributes carbon dioxide to 64% of human-caused planet warming. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 40% higher than before the Industrial Revolution, which began only 250 years ago. This short passage of time is a mere note in the symphony of life on Earth.
Although we produce carbon dioxide on a scale far smaller than natural emissions, the addition of extra gas has surpassed the World’s natural capacity for sustainable carbon regulation. This service is provided by our forests and oceans which absorb carbon dioxide. Examining the stats shows that 87% of global carbon dioxide emissions caused by us is associated with burning fossil fuels, to generate electricity and driving; 9% are attributed to land use changes, for example cutting down Amazon rainforest to produce beef; and 4% are associated with industrial processes, such as producing cement, plastic and fertilisers.
Carbon dioxide is not the only villain. Methane and nitrous oxide are less discussed but also adding support to the insulation of the Earth.
Methane is more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide; approximately 30 times better in fact. Globally, over 64% of methane emissions are caused by our activities. Interestingly, the production and supply of fossil fuels, at 33%, is the largest source of this gas. Animal agriculture is responsible for 27% of methane, largely due to ruminants – cows and sheep – which produce methane during digestion. The decomposition of solid waste in landfills as well as human and animal waste accounts for 16% of our methane emissions. Burning biomass, such as peat and wood, in addition to upland scrub clearance for sheep grazing is responsible for 11%.
Radical weather for Ireland
A decade ago scientists could make no link between storms and climate change. Now scientists from the University of Oxford suggest human caused global warming increased the likelihood of recent storms by at least 40%.
In the short-term Ireland is predicted to endure radical weather events with increased regularity: extreme flooding, gale force winds and savage storms. Professor John Sweeney has said that being on the western side of Europe Ireland will suffer more storms than other countries. Facing the Atlantic Ocean the West of Ireland will inevitably be hit the hardest. More power outages, more flooded homes, dirty drinking water and disruption to transport are inevitable. The increased costs associated with electricity and water supply as well as road maintenance in the worst hit areas would conceivably be recouped from homeowners nationwide.
For Ireland climate change will have some unfathomable consequences in the long-term. University of Oxford scientists have shown that 25–50% of us currently live in areas where homes will only be accessible by submarine. Galway, Cork, Dublin and Limerick are all vulnerable to the ebb and flow of the rising tide. A 2oC increase in temperature would sink Shannon Airport and submerge seaside towns such as Kilrush parts of Bundoran. Doubtless this will be far beyond our time, yet a differently etched Ireland is where the kids of 2116 would live.
Individual action critical
In Ireland, our national emissions per person are very high in two particular areas: transport and agriculture. Each and every one of us has the power to make personal lifestyle changes in these areas to reduce the size of our carbon footprint.
Car exhaust contributes 15% of emissions responsible for global warming. In Ireland we are very keen on driving. A 2013 survey showed that 50% of car journeys recorded were less than 2km in length. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation has predicted Ireland is on course to become the most obese nation in Europe. However, adopting more journey-based exercise – walking and cycling – in our daily routines would have numerous positive outcomes. Travelling by foot and bike would not only improve our health, it would lower carbon dioxide release and improve air quality.
For many rural communities the absence of public transport or poor levels of service leaves no realistic option for transport other than driving. Thanks to fuel efficiency public transport produces much lower carbon emissions per person than single person car journeys. The drastic improvement of Ireland’s public transport system must be a central plank in the next Government’s plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
On par with tailpipe exhaust, meat produces 15% of emissions contributing to global warming. A University of Oxford study of over 32,000 British people found that meat-rich diets (100g plus per day) produce 7.3kg carbon dioxide emissions daily. To put that into perspective a beef quarter pounder weighs 120g in new money. Vegetarian or fish-based diets register a substantially lower carbon footprint at 3.8kg emissions per day.
Emissions of methane from animal agriculture linked to our dietary choices are rarely discussed with regard to climate change.
Methane, which is highly effective at global insulation, is rarely discussed in terms of what we choose to eat. A 2014 UK Government report found that pigs produced as little as 1.5kg of methane annually. One sheep produces the same amount of gas as 5 pigs annually. Cows produce substantially more methane. One beef cow emits the same as 34 pigs annually, while one dairy cow releases the same as 74 pigs. Chickens were not evaluated. Although dairy cows release the highest amount of methane per animal, the beef sector is the worst offender for methane production as the number of cows reared for beef is much greater.
With this in mind, re-shaping our diets by reducing meat consumption, especially beef, would be immensely beneficial in reducing the likelihood of irreversible climate change. As methane has a much shorter latency in the atmosphere reducing methane will have a far quicker response in slowing the rate of global warming.
Historically, much of the protein-rich foods available – including a diverse range of beans, lentils and quinoa – were currently underutilised in the Western diet. However, a February 2016 survey carried out in the UK would suggest people are becoming more comfortable with eating less meat. The survey found that 35% of women and 23% of men had reduced the amount of meat they ate in the last 12 months. A wide range of reasons were given for this behavioral change, including health concerns (58%), money (21%), animal welfare (20%), food safety concerns (19%) and environmental reasons (11%).
Whether people know it or not a shift away from meat-rich diets will have a positive effect in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change is the landmark issue of our time. Because of its global nature, it transcends the individual, the state, economic growth and short-term politics. The global nature of the problem also makes us feel somewhat powerless as to how our actions could make a difference. We, as individuals, do have the opportunity to make ‘people-powered’ change to halt climate change. In fact we must. Equally, we must demand that the politicians who we choose to represent us use legislative power to fulfil and better still exceed Ireland’s commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
With the remarkable technology of our time the gift of foresight has alerted us to this looming climate catastrophe. For the benefit of the people living in Ireland in 100 years’ time, the young and old out celebrating the bicentenary of the Easter Rising, we must take action now!