EPA’s expert report calls for rapid action to mitigate climate crisis

26 Jan 2024

Basking sharks in Irish waters. Image: George Karbus/Fair Seas Coalition

The EPA’s ICCA report outlines the current state of the climate crisis in Ireland and provides solutions to achieve climate neutrality.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published a new major scientific report called Ireland’s Climate Change Assessment (ICCA).

The aim of this four-volume report, which complements and localises reports from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is to provide a comprehensive scientific analysis of the state of knowledge and action in relation to the climate crisis in Ireland.

Having taken three years to produce, EPA director general Laura Burke said the report “represents a major contribution to our understanding of the impacts and challenges experienced and posed by climate change in Ireland”.

“It reinforces the need for Ireland to pick up the pace of action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to our changed and future climate.”

The state of the nation

“We are already living in a changed climate.” The report is unequivocal in its assessment that human activity has warmed the climate system, and that Ireland is feeling and will continue to feel the effects of this change.

The scale of recent global changes is unprecedented for thousands of years, it says. The current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the highest it’s been in 14m years. Methane and nitrous oxide levels are the highest they’ve been in 800,000 years. Sea levels have increased by 0.2m from 1901 to 2018 and the rate of increase is accelerating. Animals are moving towards the poles, and the timing of lifecycle events, such as birds migrating and plants flowing, has changed. There have been increases in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves and extreme rainfall events.

In Ireland, the report states that recent weather events have not yet been studied in enough detail to attribute causes, but the scientists are confident that heat extremes and heavy rainfall can be indirectly linked to human-induced climate change. Annual average temperatures in Ireland are approximately 1 degree Celsius higher than in the early 20th century, and 16 of the top 20 warmest years since 1900 have occurred since 1990, with 2022 and 2023 being the warmest to date. Intense rainfall events have increased across the country and sea levels have risen higher than the global average in Cork and Dublin.

The main impacts of the climate crisis on Irish land animals have been changes in species abundance and distribution, lifecycle events, habitat structure and ecosystem processes. “Without significant mitigation and adaptation efforts, climate change will result in significant impacts for many marine, terrestrial and freshwater species and habitats, potentially undermining capacity to adapt to climate change in other sectors,” the report states.

In the face of such overwhelming statistics, it is tempting to give in to despair. However, many sections of the ICCA are devoted to offering solutions to mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis.

The simplest and most well-known of these strategies is to cut greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). “Deep, rapid, immediate and sustained emission reductions are required to keep global warming in line with the key Paris Agreement temperature goal [of 1.5 degrees Celsius],” the authors state.

“If we can reach net-zero global carbon dioxide emissions by mid-century, then components such as temperature and precipitation, which react within years to decades to changes in radiative forcing, would stabilise within the lifetime of many of today’s younger citizens.”

However, the report notes that some components of the climate system will not stabilise so quickly; sea level rise for example will take thousands of years to stabilise after net zero is reached, which is particularly concerning for Ireland’s coastal communities.

Soberingly, Ireland is falling short on this fundamental action, with emissions that are 7pc above the country’s target for 2021 and 2022, and the second highest per person emissions in the EU.

Yesterday (25 January), the Irish Government published its National Biodiversity Action Plan 2023-2030 to tackle the deepening crisis of biodiversity loss in Ireland. The plan highlights the stark situation for Ireland’s biodiversity with 85pc of EU-protected habits receiving an “unfavourable status” and many birds, insects and marine animals in danger of extinction.

The ICCA report calls for climate and biodiversity issues to be understood as interlinked. “Tackling climate change and biodiversity loss together enhances the many synergies that exist between actions to address these crises while minimising and managing any remaining trade-offs.”

By conserving and restoring important ecosystems, including peatlands and native woodlands, the authors note that not only will biodiversity be aided but it will provide economic opportunities and “enhance the cultural and heritage value of landscapes”.

Rethinking agriculture and land use

Of the many areas of Irish society that need more research and support measures, the report highlights agriculture as in dire need, as it contributes more to the country’s emissions than in any other EU state.

“Climate change will impact all aspects of agriculture,” the report says. It is noted that agriculture is the only sector in Ireland where GHGs have not reduced since 2001. Though the authors note that the pathway forward is not as clear in this sector as in others.

As temperatures rise, scientists predict an increase in pests and pathogens on arable and livestock farming, and increased rainfall amounts and intensity will lead to further nutrient washout and impact water quality. The report cautions that the lengthening of the growing season due to warmer weather, which is seen by some as a positive of the climate crisis, will be offset by longer and more intense droughts.

One key area for agriculture to mitigate climate change is through afforestation (the planting of trees) at unprecedented rates and the rewetting of organic soil, along with significant reductions in herd numbers.

Agroforestry (the integration of trees and shrubs into crop and animal farms) is seen as providing many benefits for farmers, including providing shelter for livestock, water and carbon retention and increased biodiversity. In an article published today (26 January) Dr Dimitri Van Limbergen discussed the potential for agroforestry to improve sustainable winemaking by following practices developed by ancient Romans.

The ICCA report notes that there have been successful efforts by Teagasc and others to reduce emissions in the sector. “Promoting and incentivising diversification strategies within the sector are important because reducing livestock numbers and adopting different land use strategies and bioenergy are likely to be necessary to achieve and maintain deep emission cuts,” the report states.

The authors state that mitigation and adaptation options in agriculture, forestry and land use “can be scaled up over the next decade and beyond” and provide opportunities to rural communities.

No more business as usual

A key element of the report is the call for system change. The authors note that current policies predominantly emphasise technology transitions “rather than wider systemic transformations”.

“Taking action to address the direct drivers of emissions may challenge vested interests that have a strong interest in maintaining the current status quo,” the report states.

“To enact this transformation, it is essential to broaden the scope of measures aimed at accelerating emissions reduction, including by addressing indirect drivers of emissions such as institutions, economic models, settlement and infrastructure, governance, demographics and sociocultural factors.”

By advocating for the State to radically transform society away from current models of inexorable economic growth, the report predicts that it can play a crucial role in developing more sustainable policies and strategies, which take advantage of opportunities for economic diversification in a just transition.

Part of this transformation includes more public engagement and research to improve the use of recommendations from citizens’ assemblies and robust processes to protect and include vulnerable groups.

“Realising the myriad benefits of transformative change and unlocking rapid and fair climate action requires better enabling conditions, including strong governance, capacity building, broad stakeholder involvement and continuous learning.”

In outlining the current state of the crisis and in providing scientifically rigorous solutions to many of the issues facing Irish society, the ICCA is a timely contribution to Ireland’s climate conversation.

By taking early and sustained action as outlined in the report, there is every chance a just transition will lead to healthier, safer outcomes for Irish society.

As the report states: “There is significant potential for Ireland to build prosperous livelihoods in the sustainable and resilient economy of the 21st century.”

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic