Key takeaways from this week’s Climate Committee sessions

14 January 2022

It was quite the busy week over at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action. 

Members considered the proposed carbon budgets brought forward by the Climate Change Advisory Council last October and they had an array of experts weigh in on the subject. 

For a quick recap: carbon budgets are the total emissions permitted in five-year windows in order to bring Ireland to climate-neutrality by 2050. The first two are set to bring us up to 2030 with the aim of halving total national emissions by that year. 

The first budget would aim for a 4.8 per cent emissions reduction per annum between now and 2025, and that would climb up to 8.3 per cent from 2026 up to the end of the decade. 

Tuesday kicked off by hearing from members of the CCAC itself and those who worked on models for the Council, a number of independent climate scientists came forward on Wednesday and Thursday saw members of civil society organisations bring forward their own takes. 

We tuned in every day, took notes and pulled out a list of things that stood out to us. It’s not an exhaustive list, so if you want to dive deeper, the full recorded testimony will be up on the Oireachtas website

Ireland needs to be doing more 

One unsurprising thing that came through loud and clear over three days of testimony: Ireland needs to be doing much more to address the climate crisis.

The panel of independent scientists, which included Barry McMullin, John Sweeney, Kevin Anderson and Paul Price, repeatedly called for more ambitious carbon budgets on Wednesday and Prof McMullin stressed that it’s not a matter of “doing our best, it’s doing what’s necessary”. 

Professor Kevin Anderson presented analysis that didn’t base itself on the often-relied-on concept of large scale Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) taking place in the future and found that in order to limit global temperatures to 1.5 C in the fairest way possible, Ireland would need to reach zero emissions by 2029. Such a reduction would need to see emissions drop by a staggering 30 per cent each year. 

If Ireland were instead to opt with keeping temperatures to 2 C, emissions would need to hit zero by 2038 with a steady emissions cut of 12 per cent per annum. 

Both aforementioned scenarios require much steeper cuts and brings forward the current 2050 climate neutrality target substantially. 

Prof Anderson also repeatedly highlighted that when it came to Ireland’s energy mix portfolio, Ireland should be producing renewables “with ease” due its favourable financial and geographical position, however, 88 per cent of its energy mix remains embedded in fossil fuels. 

Ireland is also falling short on climate finance, according to testimony given on Thursday by the Environmental Pillar’s Oisin Coghlan who stressed that it was “imperative” that the Government step up its contributions to help those less responsible for the climate crisis adapt to the brunt of it. 

Professor John Sweeney was also quite critical of the budgets calling them “backloaded” and stressed that the risk of slippage under the current proposed apparatus. 

Failing to see emissions reductions by 2022 and 2023 in the State therefore means that Ireland would have to make “savage reductions” in the future according to Prof Sweeney, which brings us onto our next key takeaway. 

We must and can reduce emissions immediately 

The ability and urgency to act now and not only in a few years time was repeatedly emphasized to the Committee this week and a number of suggestions on how to do just that were brought forward. 

As mentioned above, 88 per cent of our energy mix comes from fossil fuels and that needs to drop to 50 per cent by 2030 under current legislation and therefore, “we need a rapid shift and the focus needs to be moved to immediate action,” according to Professor Hannah Daly. 

“There’s no single solution. It’s society-wide,” she stressed. 

With global emissions expected to increase as economies reopen in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, experts provided a number of actions that could be taken to see this immediate drop in emissions. 

Professor John Sweeney proposed bringing an end to artificial insemination in agriculture and restricting cars in city centres as ways to bring about such cuts. 

He and other witnesses stressed that immediate action needed to be taken when it came to fossil fuel subsidies, which are implemented both directly and indirectly in the state to the tune of 2.4 billion a year. 

Last year’s 2021 Climate Action Plan proposed the identification of harmful fossil fuel subsidies as one of its actions, but as Prof Sweeney pointed out, the action has been scheduled for the first quarter of 2024. 

The delay in taking action on national subsidies was “disappointing”, he concluded. 

Our forestry is in a “serious hole” 

We’ve known for a while now that our forestry is in serious danger. Most recently, the Department of Agriculture recognised that the sector is now a source of greenhouse gas emissions rather than a sink and that the transition happened between 2012 and 2017. 

According to testimony given by Professor David Styles on Tuesday to the Oireachtas Committee – this is going to continue. 

Prof Styles also noted that not only will it take quite some time to rebuild Ireland’s forest carbon sink but that these forests are not just for 2030 targets – they also serve a purpose well out to 2050. 

The reason forestry’s carbon sink potential will take some time to restore is that it takes 15 to 20 years for trees to be able to absorb carbon, according to Climate Change Advisory Council Chair Marie Donnelly. 

“We’re in a serious hole with afforestation in Ireland”, Ms. Donnelly told the Committee. 

“So much of our work won’t be successful without a sink in place,” she added. 

The agricultural sector is opting for the minimum emission cut scenario 

Representatives from the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) made it clear to members of the Committee on Thursday that the agricultural sector as a whole would only be willing to make the minimum cut to their emissions under the proposed carbon budgets. 

The range of reductions proposed for Ireland’s largest emitting sector going forward is between 22 and 30 per cent and the IFA stressed that the sector should have to adhere to only a 22 per cent cut. The lowest cut alone would amount to a “huge challenge” for the sector, he concluded. 

However, as Professor Hannah Daly has highlighted multiple times, the lower the final target for agricultural emissions cuts are, the harder it becomes for other sectors to decarbonise as their emissions reduction figures jump up substantially. 

Professor Sweeney also argued that the only way to protect the sector from future rapid reductions if national targets are missed is to oversee immediate and significant near-term reduction of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that counts cattle as one of its sources. 

Emissions are ultimately aligned with incomes 

The independent climate scientists present at Wednesday’s Committee meeting also reiterated that wealthier individuals emit more than lower-earners and that action needs to be taken to address this disparity. 

Professor Anderson pointed out that one of the biggest discrepancies in emissions between bands of wealth is in transport, as there is a huge difference between air travel, the size of vehicles driven and the distance traveled between higher and lower earners. 

Stressing that his view that there’s no “we in society”, Prof Anderson concluded that “win-wins are for the majority, but rationing is not good for those who shape the policy realm.” 

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