For those who follow such things, there has been a lot of talk about climate change recently. Firstly, the international agreement signed by 195 countries (including Ireland) in Paris in December 2015 caused a bit of a stir. And since then, there have been various reports about rising global temperatures. (For example, 2015 was the warmest year on record, and January and February 2016 also set temperature records. In fact, 2016 is predicted to set another record, surpassing the record-breaking 2015).
However, in Ireland, there has been very little media coverage of climate change, and people in general are not very well informed about the problem. Indeed, 22pc of Irish people don’t believe human activity is warming the planet, and environmental issues are very low on our list of priorities for government action.
Ireland is feeling the effects of climate change in the frequency of storms, in the changing rainfall and temperature patterns and in increased sea levels. As climate change worsens, so will these impacts. So climate change will become a larger part of our lives here in Ireland. Hopefully, this “explainer” will help you to be better informed.
How does climate change work?
The climate system is a complex one, and of course there is “natural variability” in the climate – the variations in temperature, rainfall etc that occur naturally. However, since about 1990, scientists have become very worried about the amount of certain gases that they were finding in the atmosphere – gases that trap the sun’s heat and reflected it back down to Earth.
These gases are: Carbon Dioxide, Methane, Water Vapour, Nitrous Oxide, ozone and various chlorofluorocarbons. Two in particular were rising in the atmosphere at an alarming rate: CO2 and methane. The levels of these gases were tracked over time and were found to pretty much align with the gradual rise in average global temperatures which have been observed since about 1850.
The most serious rise was in CO2 – the gas that is caused by burning oil, coal and natural gas, the so-called fossil fuels. It has now been established that more than half the global warming recorded since 1950 has been caused by human activity, and most of that is from burning oil and coal in our cars, factories, farms and planes.
The dynamics of climate change are complex. The gases listed above form a kind of blanket over the Earth, preventing heat from escaping back into space. The heat is trapped in the atmosphere, gradually warming it up.
But there are other effects of the increased CO2 and methane in the atmosphere: the land and oceans absorb about 40pc of the gases that humans are producing, and this has led to a gradual acidification of the oceans, which in turn has caused harm to crustaceans and to coral reefs.
There are some dangerous feedback loops in operation here too. Warmer temperatures have meant that ice – both in glaciers at high altitudes and in the ice caps at the poles – is melting. This has caused an increase in sea levels. (Note: the extent of sea ice at the South Pole is actually increasing, probably due to wind systems there, but it’s not increasing enough to cancel out the melting elsewhere).
The emissions of GHGs – scientists usually call them CO2 emissions, because emissions of other gases are converted to “CO2 equivalent” so that we can all talk about the one thing – have increased steadily since the Industrial Revolution, in line with the industrialisastion process in the West (and more recently in China, India and Brazil).
It was initially thought that we had to keep CO2 in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million to maintain a safe climate. We have recently passed the 400ppm landmark, and emissions are still growing.
According to climate scientists, we can “afford” to emit 1,000 gigatons of CO2 and still keep global warming to 2C (a level scientists believe the Earth can just about cope with). If we emit more than that, then we are dealing with “runaway climate change” according to the climate scientists. By 2011, we had already emitted 511 gt – more than half our allowance.
How will climate change affect the world?
Climate and emission scenarios from the IPCC
There are various scientific predictions about what would happen under various emissions scenarios. If emissions kept going as usual and the countries of the world made no serious effort to reduce them, we are looking at a temperature increase of up to 8C.
If the world decided to go on a “war-like footing” to combat climate change, and stopped using fossil fuels altogether by 2050, then we could keep warming to 2C.
However, even given the emissions reductions agreed at the Paris conference, deep emissions cuts seem unlikely. This is why some scientists think that, while we should try mitigation (reducing emissions), we need to plan for adaptation (getting ready for climate change impacts).
So, in a scenario where the world is 6 or 8C warmer than today, most of the Equatorial areas become too hot to inhabit. There is mass extinction of species, and a huge migration of human populations pole-wards. Drought and floods are relatively normal, while rising sea levels mean that the amount of productive land is greatly reduced.
How will climate change affect Ireland?
Under the scenarios developed by the IPCC, we can see how Ireland will fare in a warmer world. As it turns out, Ireland does pretty well, at least compared to sub-Saharan Africa. Our climate will be warmer, but we will suffer very different rainfall patterns, while sea level rise will affect most of our coastal cities (Dublin, Galway, Cork and Sligo), flooding large areas of them. Overall, our climate will be milder and wetter, with more violent storms and winds.
Part of the tragic nature of climate change is that the people who have done least to contribute to the problem (because their emissions have been so low) are the ones on whom it will have most impact.
What can I do?
My carbon footprint as calculated on the World Wildlife Fund’s calculator. http://footprint.wwf.org.uk/
Climate change is a global problem, and requires a global solution. Some people take this to mean that Ireland need not do anything and should leave it to others. It seems obvious to state this, but Ireland is part of the problem (we have very high per capita emissions), part of the world, and must be part of the solution.
The first thing to do is to keep your personal “carbon footprint” as low as possible. The biggest contributor to personal emissions is flying. If you decided not to travel by air any more, that would have a big impact on your carbon footprint.
Don’t do things that burn fossil fuels – this means using electric vehicles, having a heating system that uses renewable energy, and insulating your home to a high standard. Getting an energy meter is also a good idea.
Another important step is to make your public representative aware that you view climate change as an important issue. We can change things at the personal and local level, but we need of course to change things at a governmental and policy level.
What can the government do?
Ireland’s GHG emissions by sector for 2010. Source: EPA
The next Irish government will face serious challenges in meeting the emissions targets set for it under various binding agreements at EU and global level.
We must cut our emissions by 20pc (compared to 2005 levels) by 2020 and by 40pc by 2030. At present, we have no plan on how to go about this. Our emissions profile is set to rise, as the previous government has undertaken to double our national cattle herd, which will lead to a large increase in methane emissions.