Ireland can reduce impact of extreme climate events by transforming economy, experts suggest

Ireland’s Climate Change Assessment is ‘first comprehensive assessment of the state of knowledge on climate threat to Ireland’

Ireland can reduce the impact of extreme climate events likely this century but only if it implements immediate actions to transform the entire economy and addresses adaptation issues, according to an unprecedented assessment by climate and energy experts.

That is a main finding of 23 leading Irish specialists commissioned by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to assess where the country is on climate action, to spell out what needs to be done to avoid the worst extremes of global warming this century and to identify knowledge gaps.

“Early and rapid global action on emissions reductions would very likely stabilise many aspects of our climate this century and would likely leave an Irish climate still broadly recognisable as that we experience today,” they conclude. “Delayed action on emissions reductions would very likely yield a climate that is increasingly unrecognisable as the century progresses.”

Ireland’s Climate Change Assessment (ICCA) highlights considerable benefits from prompt collective action which, it says, should be considered investments in a stable future rather than a cost.


“If we can reach net-zero global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, then many of the key components of the climate system such as temperature and precipitation would stabilise within the lifetime of many of today’s younger citizens

—  Laura Burke, EPA director general

EPA director general Laura Burke said the ICCA was a major contribution to understanding of the impacts and challenges experienced and posed by climate change in Ireland.

It “provides a picture of where Ireland is in its response to the climate emergency. It provides insights as to the scale of the challenge for Ireland to become climate neutral and climate resilient. 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,” she said.

“If we can reach net-zero global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, then many of the key components of the climate system such as temperature and precipitation would stabilise within the lifetime of many of today’s younger citizens and to the benefit of all of society,” she added.

Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan said the Government’s 2024 climate plan stands up in addressing many of the issues raised by the ICCA, but agreed more needed to be done. That was why a range of additional measures in agriculture, transport and energy were added to the plan, he added.

“I agree we’re not changing fast enough, but you can’t translate that into ‘we haven’t a chance; nothing is happening,’ ” he said at an EPA briefing.

Signs of progress were emerging, Mr Ryan said, with unprecedented retrofits of houses completed, a dramatic reduction of emissions in the power sector, large reductions in nitrogen fertiliser use in farming, which meant a 4.8 per cent reduction in overall emissions last year.

Prompt and transformative action across all sectors would minimise temperature rise to 0.91 degrees on the island of Ireland by mid-century, with further fall back by 2100, the ICCA says, but a “late-action scenario” in the analysis indicates it faces 2.77 degrees of temperature rise by century end. Separate research indicates that that scale of increase would bring increasingly catastrophic and irreversible impacts across the planet.

In that scenario, “intense precipitation extremes become more frequent and extreme with further warming in most regions of Ireland... Storm surges and extreme waves will pose an ever-increasing threat to Ireland as sea levels continue to rise,” the assessment finds.

‘Recent extreme events in Ireland highlight the vulnerability of individuals, communities, sectors and ecosystems to climate change and indicate an adaptation deficit’

—  From Ireland's Climate Change Assessment

Higher rates of sea level rise than the global average since the late 20th century is occurring in Cork and Dublin, it notes, though the reasons for this are unclear.

“Recent extreme events in Ireland highlight the vulnerability of individuals, communities, sectors and ecosystems to climate change and indicate an adaptation deficit,” it adds – This is in preparing for impacts such as sea-level rise due to global warming continuing for centuries.

“Implementation of climate adaptation measures is currently too slow and fragmented ... Storm surges and extreme waves pose an ever-increasing threat to Ireland as sea levels continue to rise, including for many coastal cities such as Cork, Dublin, Galway and Limerick – and to critical infrastructure.”

Particularly at risk are “soft sediment shorelines” concentrated along the east and southeast, it finds. Compounding this, large cities such as Dublin will experience higher temperatures than surrounding rural areas due to “the urban heat island effect, and are thus more exposed to future heat extremes”.

With increase in extremes comes challenges for the integrity of built environments and heritage sites, it says, while “it is critical that workplaces, hospitals, schools and care homes are resilient to changes in extreme events”.

The ICCA highlights deficits in critical infrastructure on which Ireland depends for delivering public services, economic growth and a sustainable environment. “Transport infrastructure is exposed to increases in sea level and flooding. For energy infrastructure, the key risks are extreme wind speeds, increased precipitation and saturated soils, given their impacts on the electricity distribution network, with flooding also of concern.”

For information, communications and technology infrastructure, extreme wind speeds and increased storminess are key concerns as “failures in critical infrastructure can cascade across other sectors and present a multisector risk,” it says.

The ICCA underlines that projected changes over coming decades show wide variability, but increases in floods and droughts are likely. As a consequence, “increases in water temperature and changes in rainfall patterns and extremes are likely to increase pressures on water quality”.

Climate disruption is also likely to increase demand for water from households, businesses and agriculture. “Impacts on water resources and floods are likely to cascade across other sectors,” it warns. This is “unfolding in the context of... decreases in water quality and lack of resilience in water infrastructure”.

There is a significant gap on “climate-neutral pathways” detailing how the critical target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 can be achieved, it says.

“These knowledge gaps, especially in the land use, land use change and forestry sector, make achieving Irish climate neutrality highly challenging and need to be urgently addressed.” The sector is currently a source of emissions rather than a carbon store.

Globally, there is increased focus on ‘climate system tipping points’ – thresholds beyond which components of ‘the Earth system’ permanently switch to new states with increasing instability

It adds: “Achieving net zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 requires significant and unprecedented changes to Ireland’s energy system. There will be difficult choices ahead. Infrastructure such as the electricity grid must be built, large investment must be sought, renewable fuels found, and homes and businesses transformed. Without these changes and societal and political support, a net-zero energy system cannot be achieved.”

Globally, there is increased focus on “climate system tipping points” – thresholds beyond which components of “the Earth system” permanently switch to new states with increasing instability. These include sea level rise from collapsing ice sheets, dieback of Amazon rainforest and carbon release from thawing permafrost.

“Several such tipping points would have implications for Ireland, either through further shifting the global climate or through altering the regional climate in the North Atlantic and north-western Europe,” the ICCA says.

For Ireland, however, collapse of the ocean currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which give it a benign climate, “is the most immediately important potential tipping point, given the importance of the North Atlantic in determining our climate and agricultural productivity”.

More action is needed to meet Ireland’s legally-binding emissions targets including large-scale and immediate emissions reductions across the energy system, which is currently heavily dependent on fossil fuels, it finds.

Immediate and sustained transformative mitigation and adaptation actions are likely to yield substantial benefits for health, wellbeing and biodiversity in Ireland while reducing vulnerability to adverse impacts. But this requires rapidly reaching at least net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and substantially cutting other greenhouse gas emissions, notable methane and nitrous oxide arising from agriculture. “Every action matters: with every additional increment of warming, impacts for Ireland will increase substantially.”

A legal basis for deep, rapid and sustained national emissions cuts now exists, it says, “although current policy and action remain insufficient to meet these aims. The pathway forward is clearer for energy, transport and the built environment than for agriculture and land use. For all sectors there are many challenges to overcome.”

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Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times