The issue of climate change came up for discussion in Ireland this week, as Dublin hosted a team of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) scientists and climate experts from around the world. On the podium Minister for Climate Action Dennis Naughten had a difficult job to do. Like the boy whose homework was clearly scribbled down and then had to be rescued from the slurry pit, he made the best of an embarrassing situation with a classic political deflection technique. But back-slapping the scientists and saying 'we're with you all the way' cannot achieve much when the reality is obviously different.
Naughten told the IPCC: “From an Irish perspective, this Special Report touches on a number of areas of particular relevance to our own climate agenda including sustainable land management and food security.” Minister Naughten tried to paint a rosy picture of Ireland's efforts thus far, but the maths do not add up. Numerous damning reports have criticised our attempts at mitigation. The EPA, the European Commission and the advocacy collective Environmental Pillar have all pointed out fundamental inconsistencies and short-comings in our Foodwise 2020 strategy, while Minister Naughten himself last year admitted that we will not achieve our targets for 2020, pushing instead for an ambitious emissions reduction by 2050. By then we might be experiencing even more severe impacts than the storm cycles of recent years. It is becoming more difficult to keep putting off meaningful action.
Deferment of responsibility is not unusual in an international context. The UN conference on trade and development (UNCTAD) report “Wake up before it's too late” finds many nations are being too passive, casually deciding to let the next generation of leaders deal with the consequences of climate change. But Ireland has the resources and potential to lead on this issue. We cannot allow ourselves to drift, because some of the possible impacts of climate change are frightening.
Our current government sees climate change as a windfall. Mitigation subsidies have attracted multinationals, and in Ireland big business is king. Multinationals are being grant-aided to buy up large tracts of land to plant commercial conifer plantations, one of the least environmentally friendly options for land use. Poorly-sited windfarms will generate years of ill-health for which the courts are already seeing litigation cases, while forestry plantations in the wrong place are both socially and ecologically damaging. Meanwhile energy efficiency is still not a national priority day-to-day. Our great leaders love to bow and scrape. So who cares if companies are hijacking wind and forestry initiatives without the guidance of a sustainable, realistic national strategy?
We will have to pick up the pieces so it is important we get involved in campaigns and remind them of where their bread is buttered.
At present, communities are being shunted to one side by the big players. These companies are facilitated by a developer-friendly planning regime, so counter-productive schemes are more than likely to win approval. But one ambition can impede the success of another. For example, as part of a commitment to increase our forest cover, commercial sitka spruce plantations are being encouraged. These plantations require large drains and are often located on marginal land, but the latest research on carbon storage indicates that wetlands are hugely valuable resources. Under carbon trading, their carbon capturing ability could be part of Ireland's emergence as a carbon storage heavyweight. Our wetlands are a monetary resource which can be cashed on the carbon credits exchange.
Furthermore, the latest flood management research is calling for less upland drainage and more wetlands to soak up deluges, which keeps them from forming torrents downstream. This approach would fit neatly with protecting wetlands for their carbon storage ability. But the increased forest cover incentives are in place and thousands of acres of marginal land have already been earmarked for forestry schemes. These precious carbon sinks will all be lost unless we change direction.
Meanwhile, our national flooding strategy is to deepen river channels by dredging. This will only increase the rate of water flow and thus, its destructive impact. So while we drain bogs to plant trees, releasing in the process millions of tonnes of stored carbon emissions, we cost ourselves valuable time and money. Getting fined each year for breaking our emissions limits is the opposite of what we could achieve. Ireland needs to see wetlands as a valuable tool in our fight against climate change and flooding. Our government can begin by getting them recognised on the carbon trading market, so that financial incentives can be created to keep and expand them. Farmers of marginal land will always want to drain the wet spots. They need to be paid not to.
Overall Ireland needs an inclusive and dynamic, realistic climate strategy. Nothing we have tried so far has inspired communities or brought people on board in any meaningful way. Sure there have been public consultations but who ever feels listened to when the final report comes out?
Community-driven initiatives are needed, by which each parish, for example, competes with its neighbour to find ways of reducing emissions, generating power, increasing energy efficiency and maximising carbon capture. When people work together they can achieve wonders. Woodland and wetland areas can be created in waste areas. These will become nature parks for local communities to enjoy and places they can go to feel empowered and involved in the international climate effort.
We certainly need to be ready to face more rain. Séamus Walsh, Head of Climatology and Observations at Met Éireann told That's Farming last year that Ireland would experience more extremes of wet winters and dry summers as the climate shifts. He said there are “indications of an increase in the number of very wet days (days with rainfall >20mm). These projections, applied to river flows, show an increased risk of winter flooding, an increased risk of short duration ‘flash’ floods and to possible water shortages in summer months due to higher temperatures and lower rainfall. The rise in sea levels will make low lying coastal areas more prone to flooding, especially from storm surges”.
Meanwhile the scientific wording of the IPCC's latest pronouncement does not hide the seriousness of something that is impacting people all around the world: “Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have increased since the pre-industrial era, driven largely by economic and population growth and are now higher than ever. This has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in the last 800,000 years. Their effects, together with those of other anthropogenic drivers have been detected throughout the climate system and are extremely likely to be the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-twentieth century.”
We see the impacts already. So it is time for us to do our bit. Wetlands can soak up a lot of this extra rain and as they act as carbon sponges too, Ireland can become a net carbon sink. Politicians will not have the imagination to bring about a mitigation policy that people are happy with. The leaders must be led. We can show them how it's done.