Kathriona Devereux: Precious few climate pledges amidst all the election chatter

One budget that isn’t getting much discussion though is our carbon budget. Perhaps politicians are avoiding that topic because those numbers are scary, so says Kathriona Devereux
Kathriona Devereux: Precious few climate pledges amidst all the election chatter

A PRESSING ISSUE: Mercy Hospital staff being taken by boat to work from Courthouse Street during the 2009 floods — an example of how extreme climate events can put huge pressure on the health service

ELECTION chatter is at full tilt. The airwaves are packed with political promises and there are lots of big numbers being tossed around.

Billions for the health service, bigger budgets for fighting crime, more money for housing...

One budget that isn’t getting much discussion though is our carbon budget. Perhaps politicians are avoiding that topic because those numbers are scary.

Since humans worked out that burning stuff gives us heat and light, we have been burning stuff to heat our homes, run our factories, fuel our cars and power our computers releasing carbon into the atmosphere, where it stays, acting as a blanket, warming our planet.

Cumulative emissions of man-made CO2 have already warmed the planet by one degree since pre-industrial times.

We’ve known about this for ages! Mrs Roche-Cagney, my Junior Cert Geography teacher in St Aloysius school, explained it thoroughly and simply in 1995. She said: “Wet places will get wetter, dry places will get drier.”

It’s a bit more complicated than that but it was textbook science 25 years ago!

A global temperature increase of one degree might not seem like much, but in humans one degree is the difference between having a temperature and being sick, and not. A two degree temperature increase is a high fever and might warrant a trip to the doctor. A three degree temperature increase can start to be life-threatening.

Similarly, our planet is very sensitive to temperature increases. Scientists from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) think that humanity and the planet can just about cope with a 1.5C degree temperature increase, but anything above that is going to cause severe suffering.

The Carbon Budget is a way of thinking about how much carbon (and other greenhouse gases) we have left to release into the atmosphere to stay within a 1.5C temperature increase.

In 2018, the IPCC said we had 420 gigatons left in our carbon budget to have a 66% chance of keeping the increase in global temperatures to 1.5 degree. One gigaton is a billion tonnes.

The numbers involved in predicting or modelling future climate scenarios are pretty mind-melting but they are worth our attention.

Globally, we emitted 37 gigatons in 2018 and that number keeps rising, which means in approximately 10 years we’ll have used up our carbon allowance and will start heading towards two degrees of warming —and consequently even more melting polar ice, higher rises in sea levels, and more frequent flooding on Oliver Plunkett Street.

In Ireland, we emit about 8.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year — twice the global average and 25 times more than the average Kenyan.

Without drastic change, Ireland will have burned through its fair share of the remaining global carbon budget within five years.

The outgoing government’s Climate Action plan aims to reduce our emissions by 2% per year, but we need to decarbonise much more rapidly at 7-8% a year.

According to research from UCC’s MaREI institute, we can decarbonise without affecting economic growth and it’s technologically feasible.

There is also increased public acceptance for the need for climate action. Ireland’s Citizen Assembly on Climate Change recommended 13 measures to be implemented and showed a willingness to pay more to tackle climate change — yet still politicians drag their feet.

Some readers might say that worrying about climate change or carbon emissions is a luxury when faced with the worry of battling for a hospital bed for a sick relative or facing into another year of emergency accommodation.

If a politician calls to the door canvassing, those are the issues that need to be raised. But a warming planet and climate change is bad for our health and our health service.

If you look at any of our recent extreme weather events in Ireland, they have put huge pressure on patients and staff at hospitals.

Remember hospital staff being brought by boat to work at the Mercy Hospital after the 2009 floods? Or staff sleeping in hospitals during the Beast from the East?

Cork University Hospital recently cancelled surgeries because of overcrowding — you have to wonder how patients and staff will absorb the extra strain that climate change may place on the health service in the coming decades.

This year, we are going to spend €150million on carbon credits because we haven’t met our EU environmental targets.

That €150 million would get a good few extra hospital beds. Or would pay for the deep retrofit of lots of homes to make them more energy-efficient.

Climate action doesn’t mean returning to the Stone Age. With climate action our homes will be warmer, our heating bills will be smaller, an improved public transport system will mean less stressing in traffic, air quality will be better, we won’t be wasting money importing fossil fuels, and will be exporting clean offshore wind energy to our European neighbours.

Most importantly, we’ll be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eye and say when we fully knew the scale of the emergency — we acted.

We all know from our own lives, whether it’s trying to eat healthily or exercise more, that changing behaviour is not easy and takes time, but you feel better in the end. And the same can be said with moving to a low carbon world.

But we need politicians to prioritise climate action and we need voters to demand action.

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