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The Paris agreement and Ireland

A map of France with the french flag colours and two hands cradling a globe of the world

Time after time references to the Paris agreement come up in the Irish press, along with dire predictions of missed deadlines and claims that Ireland is lagging behind in its commitments. So what exactly is the Paris agreement and what does it have to do with Ireland?



What is the Paris agreement?

The Eiffel tower and several plug in electric car points around it

The Paris agreement was signed during the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change on 12 December 2015. In essence, 186 parties agreed to abide by its terms, which include several measures aimed at halting global warming, and reducing and reversing climate change.

The agreement came about because of international unrest and worry regarding the future of the planet under the threat of climate change. The precursor to the Paris agreement, called the Kyoto protocol, was introduced in 1997 and defined emissions targets, but did not halt global warming, and greenhouse emissions continued to rise.

The terms of the Paris agreement were such that each country who signed it needed to plan and report on the efforts and contribution they were going to make to lessen global warming. Of those who agreed to abide by the Paris agreement, the US is the only country to have withdrawn.

The US’ withdrawal will become effective in November 2020. The agreement is legally binding for all other signatories.


Aims of the Paris agreement

The exact aims of the agreement as set out in article 2 include:

  1. To hold the increase in global temperature at below 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels and to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees optimally.

  2. Increase adaptability to climate change and encourage low greenhouse gas emissions in a way that doesn’t threaten our food supply.

  3. Focus on directing finance towards lower greenhouse gas emissions and more climate-friendly development.

In a nutshell, the aims of the agreement are to stall and maintain global warming at a 2-degree max increase, to preferably decrease the global temperature average slightly by half a degree to 1.5 degrees, and for countries to make every effort possible (including providing financial support) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

A 2-degree centigrade increase is widely held to be the “tipping point” temperature at which, should we reach it, we will be unable to reverse the effects of global warming.


Adoption of the agreement in Ireland

A blue outline of the Republic of Ireland

Unfortunately, not all countries which signed the Paris agreement are following through on their commitments. The fact that in 2018 Ireland ranked the worst out of all EU countries for action taken against global warming, is particularly shameful.

As one of the smaller island-based countries, Ireland stands to lose much if global warming is not halted and ice caps melt and sea levels rise.

We’ll also receive quite a blow to our purses if we don’t meet our financially binding targets. Due to policy and government inaction, Ireland is set to miss its 2020 emission targets, and possibly even its 2030 targets as well. Shamefully, despite being up there with the smallest countries in the world, according to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)’s report, we have some of the highest greenhouse emissions per person worldwide.

The EU agreed that all member states would reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030 when compared with levels in 1990. As part of reaching this goal, Ireland was required to reduce emissions by at least 20% by 2020 (when compared to 2005 levels).

Not only was Ireland to reduce emissions by 20%, but also to ensure that 16% of the energy used across all sectors came from renewable resources and that 10% of the energy used in transport was renewable.


Missing the 2020 target

As of summer 2019, it is clear to see that Ireland is going to miss its 2020 targets. We won’t be the only EU state to miss our targets, but we are set to miss them by the widest margin. The National Projections Report forecasts that just 14%, not the required 16%, of our energy usage will come from renewables. Even worse, the reduction of 20% in emissions is likely to be closer to 1% - an obvious and abject failure.

Projections show that emissions may even increase over the coming decade unless serious action is taken soon.

The finger for all this failure has been squarely pointed at Ireland’s reliance on fossil fuels for heating purposes, and the government's lack of action. Shockingly, fossil fuel boilers are still permitted to be installed in a newly built houses, and an increase in the amount of carbon tax for fossil fuel heating was defeated in the Dáil.

However, there are other less obvious culprits who are contributing to missing targets, such as a failure to lower carbon emissions in the farming sector.

What will the consequences be of failing to meet our legally binding responsibilities?

Ireland will be fined up to €500 million a year if it does not meet its 2020 goals. The loss of this money (which might well have been spent on increasing our renewable energy resources) will also hamper our ability to meet the 2030 targets, by significantly cutting into funding resources.

The government is planning to purchase carbon offsetting allowances to the tune of €150 million to avoid paying the entire €500 million fine. Nobody in Ireland seems too worried about the consequences of coming under our meeting targets yet, but this will probably change in 2020 when public funding is €150 million lighter.

By far the gravest consequence of all is that although the government, large industries, car companies, and agricultural conglomerates have all had a hand to play in so spectacularly missing the Paris agreement deadline, the financial consequences will be felt by public coffers that the Irish taxpayers have filled.

No excuses

In Gambia, a cripplingly poor country with over a third of the population living below the United Nations poverty line, a massive reforestation project has been undertaken and Gambia is now on track to meeting its 2020 goals.

Facts like this underscore how little has been done in Ireland to meet our own targets, and how complacent the government has been about the very real damage and consequences of inaction.


How can we meet the 2030 deadline?

With the 2020 deadline a lost cause and the government scrambling to mitigate the fallout, it’s time to see how we can possibly meet our 2030 targets.

Agriculture

Emissions from agriculture are set to grow throughout the next decade due to strong economic growth in the Irish dairy market. A comprehensive strategy is needed to halt rising farm emissions.

Currently, agriculture - cattle farming in particular - is responsible for a third of Irish greenhouse gas emissions, and rising every year, with two-thirds of Irish land devoted to agriculture.

Countermeasures such as better breeding strategies and using different fertiliser could still only cut agricultural emissions by 7% at best. Members of the farming community have argued that Ireland’s grass-fed system for cattle is more efficient and produces fewer greenhouse gases and that reducing cattle-farming in Ireland would only increase production in less carbon-efficient countries.

It sounds like many are very much missing the point - a drastic cut in dairy and meat-farming emissions is needed, and the only way to realistically achieve this is to reduce meat and dairy consumption. Not only in Ireland, but also in all countries with significant meat and dairy consumption.

Heating

Fossil fuels still play an important role in heating Irish homes, and with all the alternatives available on the market (including bioLPG, heat pumps etc.), the government simply has to do more to educate people on using greener alternatives and make them more financially accessible.

Many of the issues caused by home heating stem from the fact that the Irish population is well-dispersed across the island and many are too far away from the gas grid to connect to it. As such, many citizens are reliant on oil for heating purposes.

Even LPG would be a greener fuel than oil, although still a fossil fuel, and with the advent of renewable BioLPG there is no excuse for the government not to encourage uptake.

Transport

Transport emissions are also likely to remain a concern. The government needs to apply a three-pronged approach of:

  • Encouraging car-sharing
  • Making public transport more economical and greener
  • Encouraging the uptake of electric cars and hybrid plug-ins as much as possible

Little effort has been made to foment cleaner greener alternatives to transport. For example, Ireland is one of the few European countries that doesn’t have any electric buses. Electric car uptake in Ireland is also below the EU average, with paltry grants available that do little to offset the considerable expense of buying an electric vehicle.

Energy

Perhaps the only positive stance among all the climate issues, while Ireland may not hit its 16% target for renewable energy, it’s not far off at 14%. According to SEAI chief executive Jim Gannon, “we need to take greater advantage of the renewable resources available to us here in Ireland”.

More work needs to be done to phase out fossil fuels used in energy production, and a realistic effort needs to be made to recognise that we have made a legally binding agreement in the Paris agreement. Which, quite frankly, we just don't seem to be taking seriously enough.

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