There is international agreement by scientists and governments that the Earth’s climate is changing. While the global climate has changed many times due to natural processes and factors, human activities over the last two centuries have resulted in global warming – see ‘Causes of climate change’ below. This in turn leads to more extreme and unstable weather – storms, floods and droughts – and coastal erosion, as well as warmer weather in some parts of the world. Meteorological records show that Ireland’s climate is changing in line with global patterns.
Ireland participates in international efforts to combat climate change – see ‘Tackling climate change’ below. A national policy position (pdf) was published in January 2014 and new legislation is in place – see ‘Climate change legislation’ below.
Causes of climate change
The natural factors that lead to climate change include volcanic eruptions, changes in the sun’s intensity and slow changes in the Earth’s orbit. Humans contribute to climate change through activities that emit greenhouse gases. These are heat-trapping gases that accumulate in the atmosphere and prevent heat from escaping into space, thus causing the Earth’s surface and the lower atmosphere to get warmer. This has been compared to the heat-trapping effect of a greenhouse and is known as the greenhouse effect.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the main greenhouse gas emitted by human activities. It is generated by burning fossil fuels, such as petrol, diesel, oil, coal, peat and gas. The agriculture sector emits nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4). Other greenhouse gases include the fluorinated gases: hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), perfluorocarbons (PFC), sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) and nitrogen trifluoride (NF3).
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compiles figures on Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions for each sector: agriculture; industry and commercial; transport; energy; residential and waste. It has published a simple guide (pdf) to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions and has also produced a visual representation of the volume of gas emitted into the atmosphere.
Impacts of climate change
The EPA has noted several impacts of climate change on Ireland. They include:
- More intense storms and rainfall events
- More frequent and intense river and coastal flooding
- Effects on water quality
- Changes in distribution of plant and animal species
- Rises in sea level
- Increased acidification of seawater and changes in sea temperature, affecting some fisheries
- Summer water shortages
Tackling climate change
Several international agreements have been made with a view to tackling climate change by significantly reducing global greenhouse gas emissions. Ireland is part of these international efforts to combat climate change. It has signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and its Kyoto Protocol.
The 2030 Climate and Energy Framework agreed in October 2014 committed the EU to a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990.
More recently, Ireland attended the Lima conference of December 2014, which resulted in the Lima call for climate action. This fed into the Paris Agreement on climate change, which was adopted at the COP21 conference in December 2015 and is due to come into effect in 2020. It includes adaptation to climate change as well as the existing mitigation policies of cutting and curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
Climate change legislation
The Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Act 2015 provides for new arrangements aimed at achieving transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050. It builds on the existing National Climate Change Adaptation Framework.
These arrangements include a national mitigation plan, which will specify the policy measures needed to manage greenhouse gas emissions to meet national and international targets. They also include a national climate change adaptation framework, with a view to reducing the State’s vulnerability to the negative impacts of climate change and availing of any positive impacts. These 2 plans – the mitigation plan and the framework – are to be published within specified timeframes. They are to be reviewed at least every 5 years.
Under the Act, a high-level Climate Change Advisory Council has been established to advise and recommend on the preparation of these national plans and on compliance with relevant international obligations of the State. It will publish an annual review, based on the national inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, and will make recommendations on how the State’s climate-related objectives and obligations can be achieved. It will also undertake periodic reviews to ensure that climate policy remains up to date and that progress is maintained on implementing the 2 national plans.
The Council published its first report in November 2016.
Relevant Ministers will have to prepare sectoral mitigation measures for inclusion in the national mitigation plan, specifying the measures they propose in order to reduce emissions in their sectors. They will also have to produce sectoral adaptation plans for how their sectors can adapt to climate change, in the context of the national adaptation framework.
The Minister for Communication, Climate Action and the Environment, along with Ministers who have prepared sectoral contributions, will have to report annually to Dáil Éireann on progress made in the transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy, outline any measures needed to improve progress, and give reasons if they are not following the Expert Advisory Council’s recommendations. In addition, the Minister for Communication, Climate Action and the Environment will have to report on compliance with any relevant climate-related, existing obligation of the State under European Union law or any international agreement.
Public bodies will have to consider the objectives set out in the national plans and relevant sectoral adaptation plans. They will have to integrate these objectives into their strategic planning and day-to-day decision-making and will have to take the necessary steps as regards mitigation and adaptation in their areas of responsibility.
The Department of Communication, Climate Action and the Environment publishes extensive information on climate change, with links to other useful sources of information.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes detailed assessment reports on climate change and its causes.
The National Economic and Social Council (NESC) has published several papers on climate change issues.
The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has information on agriculture and climate change.
Read more on the website of the United Nations Environment Programme.