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By Dr Lorna Gold, Head of Policy & Advocacy, 4 March 2013
We have a seven-year window to tackle the climate crisis if we are to avoid some of its worst consequences.
So says Prof John Sweeney, leading climate expert and president of An Taisce. But if the recently published government draft ‘Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2013’ signals anything, it is the lack of urgency with which the Government treats the climate crisis.
Undoubtedly the challenge that Ireland, and the rest of the world, faces is immense. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and moving to a low-carbon society is daunting.
It’s daunting because we haven’t had to consider a transition of this magnitude before. The National Economic and Social Council secretariat, which was asked to draft a report that would inform the Government’s thinking on climate change, argued that we shouldn’t focus on target-setting because “no one knows how fast a large economy can decarbonise; certainly, no one knows how to achieve decarbonisation at the rate of 5% to 6% per year over the next 50 years”.
But then, as one commentator recently argued, the difference between dinosaurs and humans is our capacity to plan. If the Government set an emissions reduction target, the policy, planning, and action needed to make this transition would follow.
The analogy with dinosaurs is fitting. The world is facing a scenario this century where global mean temperatures could rise by 4°C above pre-industrial levels. Scientists from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics point out that changes of this level, which at first glance may seem relatively innocuous, are similar to the differences in temperatures between now and the last ice age, when global mean temperatures were about 4°C-7°C lower than today.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an expert body made up of thousands of scientists, has said emission reductions in developed countries such as Ireland should be of the order of 80%-95% by 2050 if we are to avoid dangerous climate change. The logic of omitting phased, gradual targets from Ireland’s climate bill and leaving action to chance is mystifying.
The economic, if not the environmental, case should spur the Government to action. A point well-argued by the Institute of International and European Affairs report ‘Why Legislate? Designing a Climate Law for Ireland’ is that a badly designed climate law could add an unnecessary administrative burden on the public service and end up costing the country more.
That is not to mention the economic costs of wetter weather, more frequent flooding and freak weather events, and more difficult growing conditions for farmers — an example of which was seen in 2012 when Irish farmers struggled to harvest silage and spread slurry due to excessive rainfall.
Trócaire is seeing the impact of more extreme weather in its work on a daily basis with some of the most vulnerable communities across the developing world.
These largely rural, farming communities are being hit hardest by the impacts of climate change. Small-scale farmers in the developing world are bearing the brunt of this crisis because they are extremely vulnerable to climatic changes and have limited ability to respond to new challenges posed by changing weather patterns. A sustained period without rain may not hugely impact people living in urban and developed economies but, for subsistence farmers who can eat only what they grow, it represents a serious risk.
The reality is that climate change is exacerbating existing challenges, deepening poverty for those who are already living precariously. It is an issue of deep injustice that the poorest, those who have done the least to create the climate problem, are the worst affected.
These same people continuously struggle to feed themselves and their families while, worldwide, up to half of the food produced each year ends up as waste.
It is increasingly clear that we are reaching the limits of the current development model. It has not worked for the environment, for society or for the economy. Consumption levels are unsustainably high; prime-time TV is filled with programmes about off-loading the excesses of over-consumption, be it food, clothes, or clutter.
We need more resources — water, land, energy — than we have available to us. Indeed, if we were to consume like the Americans, which is the prevailing trend among developed and emerging states, we would need four planet Earths to sustain us. A radical restructuring and reframing of our development model is needed if we are to address the imbalances within it adequately and fairly.
The starting point could be legislation that would limit the amount of emissions we are allowed to produce in our day-to-day lives. This will mean changes to the way we live, but is this necessarily a bad thing? Examples abound of people taking ownership of their consumption and development — community gardens, community-supported agriculture, green schools — the list goes on.
A bill that sets the tone and ambition for Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon society could drive the scale-up of initiatives such as these across the country. But a weak bill, like the one produced last week, does nothing to inspire change.
With only a seven-year window left to tackle climate change, the clock is ticking.
Dr Lorna Gold is Trócaire’s head of policy and advocacy.
This article was first published in The Irish Examiner on March 4th, 2013