New insights into how Ireland sees the climate crisis

Published by Kayle Crosson on

25 January 2022 

Irish research is paying more and more attention to the social science side of the climate crisis these days. 

Late last year we had the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change in the Irish Mind report and now today we’ve got brand-new research out of the Economics and Social Research Institute (ESRI) to dig into. 

The body’s Behavioural Research Unit conducted a multi-choice quiz with participants back in October 2021 and produced a number of key findings – and we pulled out some that caught our eye. 

People care about climate, but it’s dwarfed by concern for housing and health

According to the study, climate change is the third most important political issue for people in Ireland. However, it is completely overshadowed by two other topics: housing and health. 

This was particularly clear when participants were asked what their number-one-top-of-the-list issue was. Almost 13 percent said it was climate change, and about a third said it was healthcare (including the Covid-19 pandemic) while a little over 29 per cent said it was housing. 

So while climate change is coming in third overall, in the ESRI’s own words, the issue is “dwarfed” by concern for healthcare and housing. 

And that tracks with recent political trends. If we rewind back to the 2020 general election in Ireland (which to most of us probably feels like a lifetime ago), exit polls were painting a somewhat similar picture. 

According to an Ipsos MRBI poll, about a third came out of the voting booth saying health was their primary concern and a little over a quarter named housing as their main issue for the election. 

Carbon tax remains quite controversial 

And when it comes to carbon tax (a controversial policy tool to address the climate crisis) – it seems to retain its contentious status. 

Carbon tax will increase by €7.50 this year, rounding up the total figure to €41 per tonne. About half of that increase is set to go to increasing fuel allowance. 

Overall, the authors found that opinions on carbon tax are related to how much people know about climate change and that after participants saw the answers to the short quiz they took part in, the number of people who believed a carbon tax would be effective at changing behaviour rose by 25 per cent. 

But views on carbon tax overall differed across respondents. 

About half of the participants said the carbon tax as set out in Budget 2022 should be increased, with a quarter saying that increase should be by €10. 

And at the same time – over 20 per cent believed that a carbon tax was ultimately ineffective as a policy tool. About a third of respondents also said the figure should be brought down. 

A third of the population isn’t aware of how much agriculture in Ireland emits 

When it comes to Ireland’s largest emitting sector, one in three participants were not aware that agriculture was a primary source of emissions in Ireland. 

As we’ve pointed out before: Ireland remains a European outlier when it comes to emissions from agriculture. It accounts for over a third of the national greenhouse gas pie which is substantially higher than the European Union average share of ten per cent for the sector. 

And while other areas such as transport saw their emissions decline during lockdown restrictions, agriculture’s actually increased by 1.4 per cent in 2020 according to the EPA. 

The agency has attributed the growth to an increased use of nitrogen fertiliser and higher livestock numbers, particularly when it comes to dairy cattle. 

Following the removal of the EU milk quota in 2015, dairy production has significantly expanded in Ireland. In 2020 alone the total dairy herd grew by 3.2 per cent – which is reflective of a broader trend. 

Over the past decade, dairy cow numbers have increased by over 45 per cent and milk production has skyrocketed by 60 per cent in that same period. 

People seem to be less willing to engage in individual higher-impact actions 

There’s also a lot in this research to unpack when it comes to what actions people say they are willing to take as individuals. 

Low-impact environmentally harmful actions (such as putting recyclable waste in the general waste bin) was seen as more unacceptable for others to partake in than higher-emitting ones (like driving a car or continuing to eat meat). 

That also tracked with what people said they were willing to do themselves: participants were less willing to engage in higher-impact behaviours than lower ones. 

The most popular actions included recycling and using energy efficient bulbs, which both fall on the lower-impact scale of household action. 

The authors also make an important conclusion on a key finding: that providing information on climate change increased participants’ willingness to engage with moderate and high-impact behaviours, but that overall the effects on intentions were small and “unlikely to translate into the kind of behaviour change required.” 

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