I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the committees for inviting me to speak. I am a PhD student in the ICARUS climate research unit at the Maynooth University department of geography. My work is a drop in the ocean of climate change research being undertaken around the world every day, all of which bolsters the consensus that climate change is happening, that it is urgent, and that human activities are responsible.
I have been asked to speak today on the topic of climate action and sustainable development. When I first read the title of this topic, I immediately thought of speeches made by the young Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who has helped mobilise a generation against the actions of their governments by holding weekly school strikes. At her recent speeches to the World Economic Forum and the United Nations she told the delegates, "I want you to panic". In the brief time I have I will try to explain the scientific basis behind why she wants people to panic, and how climate action and sustainable development must be embraced to create a sustainable future for the next generations.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, states that we must keep global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. Warming of more than 1.5°C increases the likelihood of climate tipping points being triggered. These tipping points are thresholds that, if exceeded, can fundamentally alter the state of the climate system. To provide members with an example, one possible consequence of warming above 1.5°C is the thawing of permafrost in the Arctic, a process which is already under way and which releases vast amounts of methane, which is more than 25 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2, which will result in significant irreversible warming and is likely to trigger the collapse of other systems, including the melting of the Greenland ice sheet. This ice sheet is already melting more and more each year. If temperatures increase and the ice sheet reaches a point where it will melt entirely, we will be committed as a planet to a sea level rise of 6 m. If we allow this to happen, there will be unimaginable global consequences which pose a genuine existential threat to humanity.
When people hear climate scientists speaking about these changes in the Arctic and Greenland, they wonder how it relates to us here in Ireland, but these sea level changes will be felt on a local as well as a global scale and our coastal cities will be threatened. If we do not take action to prevent this happening, it will not matter which country did not meet its targets or which national interest was prioritised. We have already warmed by around 1°C, and will reach 1.5°C warming somewhere between 2030 and 2052, meaning we have a decade to make radical changes to our economy and way of life.
The reality is clear. As members of the EU we are committed to reducing our emissions by 40% compared with 1990 levels by the year 2030, just 11 years from now. The EU has set the goal of an 80% to 95% reduction in emissions by 2050. Current Irish policies are not aligned with our goals. While the EU as a whole will achieve its 2020 emissions target, Ireland will significantly overshoot ours. This sets us up to fail at achieving our future targets, and the longer we wait, the more difficult it becomes. We need to encourage sustainable development and ensure all members of society can reduce their carbon footprints by decarbonising public transportation, energy generation and agriculture to give everyone the opportunity to make the right choices regarding their emissions. While grants for new electric cars are encouraging, how many people can realistically avail of them? The importance of a holistic approach to adaptation is emphasised by a 2018 statement from the IPCC:
If poorly designed or implemented, adaptation projects in a range of sectors can increase greenhouse gas emissions and water use, increase gender and social inequality, undermine health conditions, and encroach on natural ecosystems [...] These trade-offs can be reduced by adaptations that include attention to poverty and sustainable development
The joint committee’s report on climate change and cross-party action echoes this sentiment in its call for a just transition to a green economy.
We need to safeguard the lives of all our future citizens. We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation who will be able to do anything about it. Individuals can and do take action, but the onus is on politicians to find solutions, create dialogue, and work towards our common goal of creating a better world for us all. Sustainable development is not only possible, it is essential if Ireland is to maintain our green reputation on the world stage. As shown by the committee’s recent report, the transition to a green economy is an opportunity for economic growth and job creation in rural and urban Ireland, and ought to be embraced for the benefits it will bring. The recommendations of the report are far-reaching and inspiring and must be implemented urgently. They range from citizen-scale efforts to retrofit homes to renewable energy generation to a national push for offshore wind generation and decarbonisation of our economy.
As a direct result of protests by the Extinction Rebellion group, the UK declared a national climate change emergency just last week. This was closely followed by Wicklow County Council which announced a climate and biodiversity emergency last week. This shows us that there is hope, but time is running out.