Introducing Cara’s Climate Friday FAQs
It’s great to see that most of us have moved beyond the question of whether or not climate change is happening, but questions around how and why to resolve it still aren’t fully understood by most people. So, every Friday leading up to the historic United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris this December, I’ll tackle a climate-related frequently asked question (FAQ) on this site. From the science, impacts, solutions, and activism, I’ll put my “sceptical scientist” hat on and aim to cover the basic arguments succinctly to help you, the reader, fully appreciate the significance of climate change and the solutions, with an emphasis on how these issues relate to us here in Ireland.
Please feel free to contact me through e-mail, Twitter, or Facebook with any questions you’d like to see addressed, and I’ll endeavour to include them in one of my weekly posts.
This week, my climate FAQ is based on a recent radio interview on RTE Drivetime with Mary Wilson. The one minute I had to respond did not fully do this question justice, so this blog gives me a chance to provide an extended response with references.
Cara’s Climate Friday FAQ: Why should Ireland take action on climate change
- Out of 213 countries, Ireland is 34th in per capita carbon dioxide emissions (World Bank, 2010). That’s just emissions stemming from fossil fuel burning and cement manufacturing.
- Ireland is the 2nd largest producer of greenhouse gases (GHGs - including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane) in Europe per capita (EEA, 2008).
- In fact, National Geographic has listed Ireland as one of the ten countries in the world with the biggest environmental footprints due to our GHG emissions.
Despite being a small country in size and population, we’ve contributed to the climate crisis in a big way.
We attribute our GHG emissions to various “sectors” of society. In Ireland, agriculture is the single largest contributor to overall emissions (32%), followed by energy (power generation & oil refining, 20%), and transport (19%) (EPA, 2013). But that categorisation of emissions helps create an “us” versus “them” mentality. It becomes the sector’s problem to address GHG emissions, and we can easily forget that it’s our own need to consume, increase profits, and “develop” that drives these emissions. Each of us is responsible for the climate problem. For example:
- On average, we drive more in Ireland than many of the richest countries in the world, including Britain, Germany, France and Japan. In fact, we’re closest to the United States of America (the most “car mad” country in the world) in terms of average kilometres driven (Cartell, 2013) due to the way we’ve (poorly) planned our cities, towns and interconnections.
- We’re in the top 30% of energy consuming countries in the world and the 12th largest energy consumer in Europe (World Bank, 2010).
- We’re the third largest food importer in Europe (World Bank, 2013), meaning we create further emissions in transporting that food and we’re more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to our dependence on food imports.
While our gross GHG emissions are small compared to bigger countries due to our small population size, our relatively comfortable lifestyle as individuals in Ireland creates far more of an impact on climate change than most other countries. Like many parents, when my daughter makes a mess, I tell her: “You made it, so you need to clean it up”. In the case of climate change, we’ve all helped make the mess and we all have an obligation to help clean it up.
As part of international agreements under the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol, many countries (including Ireland) have committed to reducing their GHG emissions. There are lots of ways to do this, but one of the most popular is to reduce the amount of energy generated from fossil fuel sources (oil, gas, and coal) and increase the amount of energy produced from renewable sources (e.g. wind, solar, biomass). It takes investment and time, but replacing non-renewable resources with renewable energy resources can lead to long term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that can make a big impact on halting climate change, not to mention improving air quality, health, and the economy.
As Mary Wilson pointed out, there’s a perception that the bigger, “badder” countries (e.g. China, India, and USA) aren’t doing anything to solve the climate problem yet either, so why should we? Here are a few things those countries are doing right now to tackle climate change:
- China: China, as a rapidly developing economy, is the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, accounting for one quarter of global emissions. However, since 2004, it has aggressively pursued renewable energy development and is now the largest global investor in wind and renewable energy, producing more wind turbines and solar panels than any other country in the world. By 2030 (or earlier), China’s GHG emissions are predicted to begin declining as a result of these and other strategies they’ve implemented to reduce energy and fuel consumption. China has committed to reduce its GHG emissions by at least 26% (below 2005 levels) by 2025 (USA, 2014) despite the fact that, as a developing (non-Annex 1) country under the Kyoto protocol, they are not internationally required to reduce their emissions.
- India: India is the 3rd largest global producer of greenhouse gases and, like China, not required to reduce its emissions under the Kyoto Protocol as a developing country. However, India aims to produce 100 gigawatts (GW) of electricity from solar energy and 60 GW from wind energy by 2022 (currently 3 and 22 GW, respectively – India Times, 2015). Just 1 GW of electricity is enough to power a small city. In 2010, India implemented a carbon tax on coal to fund renewable energy projects and is now working closely with U.S. President Barack Obama and overseas investors to secure funding to reach their renewable energy goals (Guardian, 2015).
- USA: Despite a large climate denier industry and no national legislation on climate, at least 15 states have passed legislation to reduce their own GHG emissions and many states have formed regional agreements to reduce their GHG emissions. Twenty-three states have adopted emissions reduction targets, and 27 states and the District of Columbia have established mandatory Renewable Portfolio Standards, requiring a certain percentage of electricity generation from renewable sources by a given date (CCES, 2011). In 2012, the Obama administration required auto-makers to nearly double fuel economy standards by 2025. Their Renewable Energy Production tax credit resulted in a 5% reduction in GHG emissions from electricity, and America now produces more wind energy than any other country (Windpower, 2015).
Closer to home, our neighbours have shown even greater commitments to solving the climate crisis. In 2008, the United Kingdom was the world's 9th largest GHG producer, but they stepped up to the climate problem by aiming, not only to cut GHG emissions by the agreed 12.5% from 1990 levels by 2012 (their Kyoto commitment), but to go beyond this target by cutting emissions by 20% from 1990 levels by 2010 and establishing a framework to achieve a mandatory 80% cut in emissions by 2050 through their Climate Change Act (2008). U.K. emissions have fallen gradually since 1990, and while they increased to a small degree in 2010 and 2012, they are now approximately 21% lower than 1990 levels due in part to increased renewable and nuclear energy generation and a resulting decrease in coal and gas consumption.
When someone asks me, “Why should Ireland bother taking action on climate change when bigger countries are not?” I have to disagree with the premise of the question. Even some of the largest contributors to the climate crisis are making big steps to reduce their GHG emissions through investment in renewable energy and other efforts. So, the bigger countries are taking action on climate change, while Ireland’s non-governmental organisations say Ireland is falling way behind on climate action in comparison. This brings me quite naturally into next week’s Climate FAQ. Stay tuned next Friday for Cara’s Climate FAQ #2: “What has Ireland done to help solve the climate crisis?”, in which I’ll summarise the actions Ireland has taken to date to reduce our GHG emissions so you can decide whether or not we’re doing enough to stop runaway climate change.
Keep fighting the good fight!