Each one of us will increasingly be confronted with the same question in the coming years: what are you doing to reduce your carbon footprint?
There will be a relentless focus on emissions, be they from driving a car or heating a home.
The question will equally apply to one’s place of work.
It’s all part of a new era of accountability; of determining whether actions are helping to counter global warming or fuelling the climate crisis.
Every householder, business, farmer, local authority, multinational company, State body and Government department will have to answer that question and demonstrate how they are shaping up and making their contribution to decarbonisation.
Rightly, the biggest generators of carbon – notably in sectors such as transport, agriculture, heating, buildings, aviation, power generation and shipping – will be subject to the biggest demands, and the highest penalties for failing to deliver set targets.
Lives will undoubtedly change dramatically as Ireland decarbonises. Getting out of fossil fuels will be the single most important shift.
And if the “nudge” approach, as advocated by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, does not work in big enough numbers, it will become increasing costly for those who persist with old polluting habits.
The Government plan sets demanding timelines for uptake of electric vehicles, retrofitting of homes, deployment of renewable energy, diversifying agriculture and reducing food waste.
Renewable energy will make up 70 per cent of all power generated within 12 years, backed by the scale-up of offshore wind and interconnectors to Europe.
Citizens and communities will be able to get involved in micro-generation of power and benefit from an energy revolution.
The carrot approach will apply initially as the Government pushes for changes in lifestyle, most notably in purchasing habits.
This will have to be backed by incentives, low-cost finance, information and one-stop shops. Retrofitting homes is a complicated, expensive exercise because buildings have to be insulated extensively to avail of the benefits of the heat pumps or electric motors that are destined to replace oil- and gas-fired boilers.
The target of one million electric vehicles by 2030 is a mark of the scale of ambition. In effect, very soon every new car sold in Ireland will have to be electric, even though their cost is currently prohibitive for most motorists.
Carbon tax increases will be the instrument to flag the move to a low-carbon Ireland. And increasingly the stick will be deployed if progress is too slow, as there is so little time to reverse global heating trends.
Planet Earth is facing an existential threat due to climate disruption caused by human activity. Last year’s UN “1.5 degree report” made it all too clear that a failure to act collectively would set in train irreversible consequences.
The world is facing a catastrophic three degree-plus rise in global temperatures as actions up to now simply have not worked. Moreover, Ireland has one of the worst records among developed countries in reducing emissions and adopting renewable energy to targeted levels.
The Government plan to tackle climate breakdown is a bold attempt to address the country’s deplorable failures up to now.
Efforts are concentrated on the period up to 2030 because it is the most cost-effective approach, and Ireland has to reduce emissions dramatically by then if it is to have any chance of shaking off its laggard reputation. Genuine, verifiable sustainability is increasingly an issue in global trade.
A detailed series of pathways to meet those demanding 2030 targets are set out in the plan. Where in the past there was vagueness and general targets, now there is detail and specifics.
This will be a platform to reach a net zero emissions economy by mid-century. That means by then emissions from homes, transport, farming and industry will have to be avoided completely or – in the most difficult examples – offset by planting trees or sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere.
Most significantly, there will be a new governance structure with vigorous accountability. This is ensured by five-yearly carbon budgets, setting emissions limits for sectors with cost penalties for failure to stay within agreed limits.
Asked on Monday what measures were critical to Ireland moving from laggard to global leader in countering climate disruption, Mr Varadkar declined to identify which of the 183 actions in the climate action plan mattered most.
Perhaps sensing the scale of what is facing the country and life on Earth as we know it, he added: “You kind of need to do all of them if we are going to achieve what we want to achieve. And it does require everyone to take part, not just Government, but also local authorities, business, families, households and individuals as well.”
A lot of the policies are about nudging people towards making the right decisions rather than coercing them, by making it simpler and cheaper to do the right thing and, over time, a little bit more difficult and more expensive to do the wrong thing.
This plan, he added, was the right thing to do in stabilising our climate, while at the same time providing warmer homes, cleaner air and shorter commutes. “It’s good economic policy. it’s good social policy. It’s good environmental policy, and we just need to make it happen.”
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