The curtain has come down on COP26... so what did we learn?

Vera O'Riordan was part of the UCC delegation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26
The curtain has come down on COP26... so what did we learn?

UCC COP26 delegation for Week 2: Rhoda Jennings, Jason McGuire, Vera O'Riordan, Dr. Eoin Lettice.

OVER the past week, I have been part of the UCC delegation for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26. The negotiations went on over two weeks, with four delegates from UCC attending the first week and another four delegates attending the second week.

Back home, I am a PhD student in the Energy Policy and Modelling Group based at MaREI and the Environmental Research Institute. While my research focuses a great deal on passenger transport, the team I work with looks at the role of electricity, industry, service, and residential sector energy demands.

We look at how energy demands can be reduced, fossil fuels can be phased out, and at how biofuels and renewable electricity can meet Ireland’s needs in a low carbon way.

Attending COP26 helps us understand the global targets being set and how this might affect policy in Ireland. 

We calculate total carbon dioxide emissions from different sectors happen right now and calculate what policies can make a difference, and what policies could be better in the future.

A highlight of COP26 for me was meeting delegates from the Africa region. I heard about biofuel projects in Liberia, which used coconut waste for clean cooking, and sustainable agriculture initiatives in Ghana which involved people working on the ground with farmers to switch to more sustainable farming. We would do well to learn from our international friends in this respect.

A big moment for week one was the commitment on cutting methane emissions by 30% by 2030. 

While Ireland has signed up to this, it is still unclear how it will achieve the target without a strategy to switch to more sustainable food production on our farms, moving away from a beef and dairy emphasis which emits a lot of this methane we have pledged to cut, to a broader mix of food production including greater shares of forestry, plant and perhaps poultry.

Back home, politicians have reassured Irish people that we will only contribute 10% to this 30% pledge, as a lot of the methane emissions emphasis lies on natural gas fields emitting methane. However, it could also be argued that a lack of ambition to reduce methane is a bad thing, as even with this pledge we are not meeting the 1.5-degree target.

Ireland also was one of the 15 founding members of the Clydebank Declaration, which committed to the development of green shipping corridors and using hydrogen and ammonia for freight. As a PhD researcher with a focus on transport emissions, this was an interesting initiative to watch unfold.

Ireland was also first in line to sign up to commitments relating to zero emission cars and 30% net zero freight by 2030. To be honest, the commitments were underwhelming, given the seriousness of the situation, and having net-zero targets by 2030, 2040 and 2050 is all well and good... but our calculations show it is the year-on-year reductions and the carbon dioxide emissions each year that matter.

It is not an exaggeration to say that some of the presidency events at COP26 were guilty of false optimism and greenwashing.

Also, the level of concern surrounding Article 6, which is the carbon market mechanism that would allow countries to buy and sell carbon credits, has also been increasing at the time of writing this piece. The Article would enable countries to offset their carbon targets by investing in sustainable projects abroad.

It is a market-based approach that isn’t without its controversy. For example, it could give wealthy, high emitting countries - such as Ireland - an excuse not to transition to fossil free infrastructure heating, electricity, and transport here at home and enable them to pay for the problem to go away with afforestation and renewable projects in other regions.

That could be a risky strategy for Ireland, the opportunities to pay away our carbon could become very expensive if we do not cut emissions. At the same time, the carbon credits scheme can help raise much needed finance from wealthier countries to less wealthy ones to fund afforestation, clean energy and sustainable building and transport projects across the world.

Over-reliance on carbon offsetting would be a missed opportunity for Ireland to develop its own low carbon solutions and its own energy security with home-made renewables. We currently import a lot of fossil fuels, which makes us dependent on other countries for the materials we need to make our country tick, and ultimately paying for other countries to offset our carbon dioxide emissions won’t be enough for countries to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming if there is uncontrolled growth in carbon dioxide emissions, as there are only limited opportunities for offsetting carbon.

It’s important to note that carbon markets have been under negotiation for the past six years, so you can imagine why there is a great deal of frustration amongst activists and that there is little sense of urgency amongst some policy-makers.

Meeting with climate activists and other researchers, and hearing from industry and policy makers enables me to come up with better ways to imagine and provide evidence for climate solutions in Ireland.

Understanding the broader global context of climate policy-making helps a great deal with my research as a PhD student with MaREI’s Energy Policy and Modelling Group based at the University College Cork.

I first got interested in a career in climate action when I was 16 years old. It led me to choosing a degree in Energy Engineering at UCC, and from that I got a chance to work as a research assistant and then as a PhD student at MaREI, based at UCC.

For any young people worried about climate change, I’d encourage you to follow up with a career in the climate space. We’re going to need a broad range of skills across all disciplines to take on the climate crisis.

In my time working within the climate space, I’ve spotted the key skills needed to help are in the areas of construction, governance, international relations, law, politics, business, entrepreneurship, communication through all forms of media, mathematics, computing, biology, economics, education, agriculture, transport, finance, and my own discipline of engineering - so there’s plenty of opportunity to get stuck in.

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