What does declaring a climate emergency actually mean?

10 May 2019

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Ireland has become the second country in the world to declare a climate emergency, but it isn’t clear what this will change, writes Colm Gorey.

Just six TDs were sitting in the Dáil when the vote to declare a climate emergency came before the House. Fianna Fáil added a last-minute amendment to the Oireachtas report on climate action and, lo and behold, it was accepted by both the Government and opposition without a vote.

In doing so, Ireland has become only the second country in the world to declare a climate emergency, following in the footsteps of the UK, which did so on 1 May. In a rare moment, Ireland has made global headlines for appearing to show that it is finally taking climate change seriously.

16-year-old climate change activist and inspiration to millions as part of the Extinction Rebellion movement, Greta Thunberg, has even tweeted her support for Ireland.

The reaction from Government has also been quite positive, with Fine Gael’s Hildegarde Naughton, TD – chair of the Committee on Communications, Climate Action and the Environment – describing it as an “important statement” but adding that “now we need action”.

The original amendment was put forward by Fianna Fáil’s climate action spokesperson Timmy Dooley, TD, but by the time of the vote not a single TD was there from that party.

Instead, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, TD, had to put it forward, saying that this was us declaring “a climate emergency in our own Irish way”. In a moment that should have been surrounded by fanfare, it felt more like a ‘ah, sure, go on’ kind of moment. Is that really such a strong statement to give?

Which brings us to the question: what does declaring a climate emergency actually mean? Not much, as it currently stands, with it being more of a declaration of intent rather than agreeing any concrete moves.

This is a dangerous place to be in Irish politics, especially so when it comes to actually dealing with climate change.

This sentiment appears to be shared by those TDs who supported declaring a climate emergency, with Ryan stating that “declaring an emergency means absolutely nothing unless there is action to back it up”. He added: “That means the Government having to do things they don’t want to do.”

Similarily, Solidarity-People Before Profit’s Bríd Smith, TD, said it will be “interesting to see” if the Government supports her own Climate Emergency Measures Bill that will be put forward next month to limit future fossil fuel exploration.

Shedding a bad image

The Government has certainly been keen to shed the country’s image as a “laggard” when it comes to climate action, but right now its biggest steps have appeared to be spending a few million euro here, or a few million euro there.

In December, we were ranked the worst country in the entire EU for climate action, and 48th out of 56 countries globally by the Climate Change Performance Index. It seems beyond coincidental that the Government has announced each and every small change since then, making it look like it’s doing something, even if it’s as small as cutting down on single-use plastics.

These are positive steps, but they don’t solve the overbearing problem that we have absolutely no hope of meeting our emissions reduction target for 2020 – admitted by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD – and similarly no hope of meeting our 2030 target, either. Rather than things turning around, findings have only shown that some of our emissions are actually increasing.

It’s also pretty worrying that an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report towards the end of last year showed that while Ireland’s CO2 emissions decreased slightly in 2017, this was the result of “circumstance rather than deliberate action”. This included the finding that emissions from agriculture contributed to a 3pc rise in CO2 emissions in 2017, on top of a 2pc rise in ammonia emissions.

As we approach important local and EU elections – and with a general election not too far ahead – I worry that this declaration of a climate emergency will just amount to a PR exercise and empty promises. The UN said we have just a bit more than a decade to avert a global catastrophe brought on by climate change, but can the Government act fast enough to save us?

At least now, the alarm should be ringing in the ears of every politician in the country.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic