What does Ireland owe the world for its role in climate change?

From 1960 to 2014 Ireland’s emissions exacted $55bn in losses across countries largely in the global south

During March diplomats from two dozen countries, including Ireland, began hammering out details of a new United Nations fund to aid countries hard hit by climate disasters.

The forthcoming “loss and damage” fund, expected to be in place later this year, aims to channel money from the world’s wealthiest and most prolific emitters to vulnerable nations. Agreeing on the fund was the most significant outcome from Cop27 in Egypt last year.

Among the points left to be negotiated is who, exactly, should pay into the fund. A key factor in this determination is how much countries have emitted over time. Early industrialisers, such as the UK, have had an outsized role in climate change and will be expected to pay.

China contends that it should not have to pay given that it industrialised only recently. Ireland falls somewhere in between. While Ireland’s per capita emissions trailed the UK’s for most of the last century, it now ranks among the world’s biggest emitters, generating more carbon dioxide per person than the British or the Chinese.


The UN has no formal method for apportioning responsibility for climate change, but researchers at universities and think tanks have made their own appraisals to help inform negotiations. These estimates offer some insight into Ireland’s climate impact and what it would look like for Ireland to pay its fair share of climate aid. For a study last year, scientists at Dartmouth University in the US estimated how much economic damage every country has inflicted on every other country through its contribution to warming. The research found that, from 1960 to 2014, Ireland’s emissions exacted $55 billion in losses across countries largely in the global south.


Annual carbon dioxide emissions per capita: Courtesty of The Conversation — Our world in Data, Global Carbon Project

The study also found that rising temperatures have thus far enriched cold countries, including Ireland, by boosting productivity. From 1990 to 2014, warming added $51 billion to the Irish economy, according to the analysis. Notably, the authors conclude, the cooler, wealthier nations that have gained the most from warming are also those that have inflicted the greatest damage on the global south.

“The responsibility for the warming rests primarily with a handful of major emitters, and this warming has resulted in the enrichment of a few wealthy countries at the expense of the poorest people in the world,” study co-author Justin Mankin, a professor of geography at Dartmouth, said in a statement.

This is largely an accident of geography. The richest nations — the US, Canada, Europe — tend to sit at higher latitudes and are best insulated from rising temperatures, while the poorest — India, Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa — lie near the equator, where intensifying heatwaves and cyclones are most severe. Warming is now prying open the gap between rich and poor, as well as exacting a significant human toll.

About half of humanity lives in parts of the world that are highly vulnerable to climate change, largely in the global south, according to a UN climate report released early this year. In these regions, people are 15 times more likely to be killed by floods, droughts, and storms than they are elsewhere, it found.

After devastating floods, made more intense by climate change, hit Pakistan in September, Pakistani prime minister Shehbaz Sharif told the Guardian that the disaster was “not of our making but we have become a victim”. He said that his country should not have to take a “begging bowl” to rich nations for help with the recovery.

In east Africa, where rising temperatures are now stunting rainfall, an extended drought has wiped out livestock, threatening widespread starvation. At November’s UN climate conference, Kenya’s president William Ruto called the lack of support for developing countries facing climate change “cruel and unjust.”

Map: The Conversation/CC-BY-ND

The countries most vulnerable to climate change: The Conversation — Source: Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative

Looking ahead, one widely cited study estimates that climate change could inflict more than half a trillion dollars in damages on developing countries in 2030. Ireland is responsible for a little more than one-tenth of 1 per cent of warming, which would put its share of that bill north of $700 million annually.

In the lead-up to Cop27 in November, then taoiseach Fianna Fáil’s Micheál Martin pledged €10 million for an initiative that will provide climate insurance to vulnerable countries. Critics say the scheme, which will direct government money to private firms, will enrich insurance companies while doing too little to address “loss and damage.” A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs says the insurance programme is “one important initiative” which will “increase financial protection for climate vulnerable countries”.

Martin’s announcement came amid similar pledges from Austria, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and Scotland that did little to settle the clamour for rich countries to make formal reparations for climate change. At November’s negotiations, developing countries pressed for the creation of the new “loss and damage” fund, and wealthy nations, who had long sidelined the issue, ultimately conceded.

Doubts linger, however, as to whether rich countries will provide enough funding for “loss and damage” from climate disasters, as they have already fallen short on a separate pledge to help developing countries wean off fossil fuels and guard against more extreme weather. In 2009, wealthy nations promised $100 billion in climate finance annually by 2020, but they have yet to meet that target, which experts say is already just a small fraction of what’s actually needed.

Who is to blame? “The UN climate accords do not propose any specific ways to attribute responsibility for climate finance,” says Sarah Colenbrander, climate director at ODI, a UK-based think tank. But estimates of what countries should contribute, based on their emissions, find that the US, Australia, and Canada bear the greatest responsibility for the shortfall. These nations — the US, in particular — are many billions away from meeting their obligations. Much of western Europe, including Ireland, is also failing to pay its fair share.

Last year Martin promised to more than double Ireland’s contribution to climate finance by 2025. Ireland’s direct contribution, along with its share of EU climate finance, will amount to $350 million yearly, ODI estimates. But this is substantially less than Ireland’s fair share of $520 million annually, according to an ODI analysis based on countries’ past pollution and present wealth.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs says Ireland “strongly supports the need to increase international climate finance. We put particular emphasis on finance that supports vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change and address the loss and damage from its impacts.”

Sharing the pain

Key to international climate negotiations is the principle of “common but differentiated responsibilities” — essentially, that wealthy nations bear greater responsibility for tackling climate change.

To limit warming to 1.5 degrees, the key goal of the Paris Agreement, the world must slash emissions by 45 per cent by 2030. The EU aims to cut its emissions by 55 per cent by that year. But even with this target, Europe is still not doing its fair share, says Sarah Heck, a climate policy analyst at Climate Action Tracker.

The 55 per cent goal “does not reflect the EU’s higher past emissions in comparison to least developed and developing countries, or the capacity to reduce emissions faster than many other countries”, she says.

In a recent Twitter thread, EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans said the bloc will be ready to update its climate target after negotiations on a new climate package conclude.

What do analysts say would be fair? “If the equity aspects are taken into consideration, the EU should reduce emissions by over 90 per cent,” Heck says. Given that this would be a nearly impossible task, she adds, the EU would likely have to make up the shortfall by channelling more money to help developing countries cope with climate change.