Climate change will define our future

The effects of a warming planet are closer to you than you think

Rise up, or the tides will. Climate change is here, it will get worse, and we will face its increasingly devastating effects as we age. We are the generation born into a world sickening from carbon emissions, but we are also the generation that has the power to stop our own species’ demise. This is an issue which can easily be pushed to the back of our minds as the high tide of the Liffey has not yet reached the steps of The Buttery. Indeed we have other things to be aggrieved about – student fees, a housing crisis, and an increasingly unstable job market – but do we ignore climate change at our own peril?

A year in college life will include ups and downs, in the same way that a year in the climate of planet Earth fluctuates between below or above average weather markers. But year on year, as more of us have been going to university, despite natural fluctuations, the average global temperature of the Earth has been rising due to the increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In real terms here in Dublin, this has not meant very much. However, the warning signs of global warming have already surfaced. Only last week, forest fires in California claimed the lives of countless people. Tropical storms like Hurricane Harvey, which claimed the lives of 107 people and left $125 billion worth of damage in its wake, are increasing in number and in strength. The European Alps are experiencing less snow and the glaciers around the world are retreating. The Great Barrier Reef has experienced its most severe coral bleaching to date, related to warming sea temperatures. The Arctic summer sea ice has had its 12 lowest extent measurements in the last 12 years.

“The IPCC have estimated we have already warmed 1 oC above pre-industrial temperatures.

If these devastating natural disasters alone weren’t enough to persuade you of the need for action on carbon emissions, the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has revised its advised upper limit of warming down to 1.5 oC, not 2 oC. The report, released in October 2018, was commissioned by the UN at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 and was the result of over 6,000 scientific studies. Increasingly, more accurate climate models show that domino effects will result from slight increases in global mean temperature, leading to quicker degradation of climate-linked processes than previously thought. The IPCC have estimated we have already warmed 1 oC above pre-industrial temperatures. This leaves us with only 0.5 oC before we pass a point at which climate feedback loops could amplify each other, leaving the planet in a “hothouse” state. Governments around the world have not taken stringent enough action and we are on track to hit at least 3 oC above pre-industrial temperatures – an outcome which humans are unlikely to survive. Achieving the goal of 1.5 oC or less, as called for by the IPCC, is a seemingly insurmountable challenge, but it is still possible.  

“It was omitted from the most recent budget in 2018 to the shock and dismay of many environmental NGOs.”

According to the IPCC, in order to stay within 1.5 oC warming, global net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions must decline by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. They suggest that unprecedented changes at every level of society are required to cut carbon emissions to this level. A key suggestion by the IPCC and many environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is the use of carbon tax to limit activities and goods that have high carbon emissions, and encourage less carbon costly alternatives. In Ireland, the Citizen’s Assembly on Climate Change and the Climate Change Advisory Council recommended an increase in the carbon tax on fossil fuels, rising from €20 to €30, but it was omitted from the most recent budget in 2018 to the shock and dismay of many environmental NGOs. Ireland has one of the highest carbon emission rates per capita within the EU. It was third highest in 2016.

Ireland has many avenues open for renewable energy – wind, biomass, solar, hydropower, and even wave or tidal are all ways to generate clean energy. Yet we are lagging behind badly in upgrading our electricity sources. Moneymore power plant produces approximately 14% of Ireland’s electricity from imported coal from Colombia. The Colombian mine that ESB gets this coal from has been linked with environmental and human rights abuses for over two decades. Ireland also operates three peat power plants, one of the most inefficient ways to generate electricity, for which the government recently attempted to provide subsidies for, despite the possibility of incurring €50 million per year in EU fines for doing so. However, we do utilise wind power well, with approximately 20% of electricity produced in this way.

Transport is another obvious point at which to cut our carbon emissions. Switching to electric vehicles and improving public transport infrastructure are two definite ways to slash Ireland’s carbon emissions. We will also need to reassess how we build, insulate, and heat our buildings to maximise efficiency and minimise pollution.

A surprising tool to combat climate change on a global scale is the education and empowerment of women. It is actually one of the most important tools as educating women leads to lower fertility rates. Fewer people means fewer emissions. Fewer people also means less food required and less food waste – two huge contributors to carbon emissions. Radical changes for meat-loving Irish people may be swapping real cow meat for lab grown meat, or switching to plant-based diets.

These are all ways to limit the carbon we release, but a crucial factor which will potentially make or break if we can keep within 1.5 oC limit is how we capture carbon from the atmosphere. The most basic way to do this is reforestation. Ireland has lost almost all of its native woodland to make way for farmland and towns, but higher efficiency agriculture could allow for some of that land to be reclaimed for forests. High-tech carbon capture solutions are also being explored, especially by fossil fuel companies who want a “get out of jail free” card, but not many of these are currently viable.

At a global and societal level, these changes will mostly need to come from the government, but as an individual you can indeed make lifestyle changes to give the planet better prospects. If you want to be a low carbon citizen, you should cycle like you’re from The Netherlands, use public transport like you are from Japan, eat like a Tibetan Buddhist, protest like a 1970s student hippy, and source your clothes and shoes like your grandparents did (make your own or buy infrequent high quality handmade goods).

“71% of global industrial carbon emissions result from only 100 companies.”

However, lifestyle changes by individuals will never be able to have the same impact as curbing the emissions by national bodies and global companies. 71% of global industrial carbon emissions result from only 100 companies. These mainly oil and gas companies are propped up by neoliberal capitalism which allows them to continue to operate and pollute the world while making a profit and making the planet and its people sick. According to some environmentalists, we are gaslighted into believing the power of our individual choices to affect climate change, when in fact the global operations of some companies emit hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide a year. Over half of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, the time officially recognised as the beginning of human induced climate change, can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned producing companies. Ireland’s total carbon emission in 2014 was estimated to be 58.3 million tonnes compared to ExxonMobil’s 122 million tonnes in 2017.

Getting the Irish government to act and change policies which govern companies’ carbon emission limits or how electricity is generated may have a much greater effect on reducing carbon emission than small lifestyle changes by individual Irish people. Environmental activism will be key to staying below the 1.5 oC limit, and anyone can play their part. In order to stir action at a governmental level, and to try and rein in the effects of companies’ contributions to climate change, you can join organisations such as Greenpeace, Young Friends of the Earth, or the Green Party. Get involved with the Irish student activist network or join the Environmental Society on campus. You can join protests, sign petitions, and email your local TD when environmental bills are passing through the Dail.

If you take one thing away from reading this article, let it be the need for your action. Small, individual lifestyle changes do add up, but the biggest impact on cutting carbon will be made at a governmental level which has to be lobbied for by the Irish people. The world needs you to ask the Irish government and Irish companies to play their part in changing our society into one in which the everyday choices available to us are climate friendly. The world is literally at crisis point and every voice that shouts for change will hopefully turn the tide of indifference by policy makers. This fight is no longer for the sake of our grandchildren, it is for us.  

Maeve McCann

Maeve McCann is a former Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News.