Climate change: ‘How can we feed the world while not damaging it?’

Is Ireland’s new climate action plan the blueprint needed to transform the country within decades?

The world is at a pivotal moment as the ship of global climate action finally turns to face in the right direction. Armed with its 2024 climate action plan, the Government has declared that it wants Ireland to be a leader in navigating the stormy waters that lie immediately ahead.

That determination could become undone by a planet destabilised due to human-caused climate change, with ever-rising global temperatures and atmospheric greenhouse gas levels not seen for two million years. Yet the availability of known solutions has reached critical mass, suggesting doomspeak should be parked and we should get on with their deployment.

Crucial questions arise: Will we act fast enough to avoid our unsustainability pushing us to extinction? Is Ireland’s climate plan ambitious enough to transform its economy within decades? Are we adequately prepared for rapidly growing climate risks? We can be the first generation to achieve a sustainable world – but are Irish people sufficiently equipped to do so?

Known as CAP24, Ireland’s Climate Action Plan is a roadmap for halving emissions by 2030 and achieving net-zero by 2050; a climate playbook with hundreds of time-bound actions. It is out for public consultation, with the Cabinet due to sign off on it in weeks. It coincides with unprecedented public support for ramping up responses to the climate crisis, though often there is a gap between willingness and doing.


The Irish Times asked leading climate and energy experts to provide their assessment of CAP24.

Rising emissions have long been a stick with which to beat Ireland over its poor record but Sadhbh O’Neill, senior climate adviser to Friends of the Earth (FoE), highlights indications that emissions have potentially peaked.

“The EPA’s projections for 2030 are now for significantly lower emissions than they estimated in 2020,” says O’Neill.

Lower emissions mean we should expect improved air quality, warmer homes, better public transport, more energy security, lower energy prices, green jobs and opportunities to restore nature, she adds.

“But we should not be complacent. Ireland is dangerously off track to stay within the binding limits on emissions set on a cross-party basis, and many of the Government’s proposed measures are not grounded in reality.”

She argues that these rely on wishful thinking, technologies not available at scale and the achievement of 80 per cent renewable electricity, which is unlikely unless dedicated resources are placed in key agencies and grid barriers and planning/regulatory delays addressed. We should learn from what has worked and what hasn’t.

“What we can learn from implementation of the annual climate action plans to date is that political will, coupled with a strong and co-ordinated governance framework and legally binding limits on emissions are all essential to drive climate action. If any one of these is lacking, progress will slow and stagnate,” she warns.

We’re still not seeing the paradigm shift in policies, investment and behaviours that climate action demands

—  Sadhbh O'Neill

New infrastructure – wind farms, grid improvements, Metrolink – take years to come on stream, so planning is needed now for what will be in place in the 2030s.

Climate governance, policy co-ordination and consistency have improved dramatically, O’Neill says.

“Emissions are starting to fall in some sectors – and against a backdrop of sustained economic growth, high employment and a growing population,” she adds. “This is not insignificant achievement ... 2023 was an impressive year for renewable electricity, with record levels of wind powering Ireland’s electricity system.”

However, the list of what hasn’t worked is long. “Many measures delivering emission reductions are targeting ‘low hanging fruit’ or marginal decreases and won’t achieve the scale of emission reductions required under national and EU law for 2030, never mind 2040 or 2050,” says O’Neill. “We’re still not seeing the paradigm shift in policies, investment and behaviours that climate action demands.”

The plan does not explicitly address the challenge of fossil fuel infrastructure, generation, supply or subsidies. Some carbon-intensive projects likely to lock in fossil fuel demand are still going ahead or being promoted – Dublin Airport expansion, intensive agriculture, new roads and some building projects.

Emissions are still rising or not falling fast enough in some sectors, driven by lack of infrastructure; planning delays are affecting renewable energy projects, public transport and active travel; while growth is driving up energy demand that outpaces renewable energy deployment. There is a lack of incentives or sufficient skilled labour “and reliance on technofixes and efficiencies that don’t exist at scale”, says O’Neill.

Pathways to net zero have to actually reach zero, she adds. “Winning slowly is the same as losing – this is the inconvenient truth of atmospheric physics. The pace of change is as important as the target. We need to be charting pathways to bring emissions down to net zero and that will require pathways that go well beyond the 2030 target ... Front-loading climate investment is disruptive in the short term but economically prudent.”

As long as “growth and profits are trumping sustainable investment strategies”, aggregate demand is likely to continue to grow and emissions will creep up again, says O’Neill.

CAP24 is ambitious but “only as good as its monitoring and implementation”, says Dr Clare Noone of the University of Galway. A more holistic Government approach would be welcome, with “just transition” at its heart, she says.

“Transformational change and co-benefits could be better highlighted,” says Noone. “Renewable energy is a keystone enabler and the benefits of cleaner air, energy security and climate action need to be taken into account and communicated to the public. This will be particularly important as the required electricity infrastructure is rolled out and opposition may become a barrier to implementation.

“More research and outside-the-box thinking is needed to transform the way we live, in a way that is fair and has benefits – not just climate benefits – for society.”

CAP24 is not accessible to most people, Noone says. The public needs to be able to see the importance of collective action and how they can support it.

Noone points to California, which introduced a law for accessible dwellings (sometimes called ‘granny flats’), which had social, economic and environmental benefits, and helped alleviate its housing crisis.

“These new dwellings contributed to sustainability goals because they encouraged density in existing neighbourhoods, which allowed them to tap into existing infrastructure, communities, and services,” says Noone. “They also lead to fewer emissions by encouraging shorter commutes. And, because they are smaller, they also require fewer building materials and use less energy to heat.”

Agriculture’s impact needs to be better addressed, she says, the key question being: “How can we feed the world while not damaging it?”

“Agriculture is our main greenhouse contributor ... While [it] is a necessity, we need to find the right balance. This will take many areas working together to figure out. A more holistic cross-Government approach would be welcomed to maximise the benefits for land use, biodiversity, air and water quality – and to ensure a just transition for the farming community.”

Effective climate action requires cutting emissions and adaptation, ie adjusting to present and likely future impacts while avoiding harm to people. The latter is about being resilient, says Dr Stephen Flood, of the Climate Change Advisory Council secretariat.

“Resilience asks how we can shift from short-term, incremental, project-focused and reactive approaches in dealing with climate change to planning and action that is long-term, transformative, holistic and forward-looking,” he explains.

“Flood adaptation strategies that are informed by resilience thinking include a range of actions for reducing risks, such as analysing hazard probability, exposure and vulnerability before flood events. This forward thinking can help to enhance preparation, response and recovery capacities for when a flood occurs.”

In CAP24 a vision for resilience is set out that includes a proposed national strategy for nature-based – rather than heavy-engineering – solutions to manage increased rainfall and surface-water runoff in urban areas.

“We will need to ensure that our cities and towns are designed to cope,” says Flood. “We need so called ‘sponge cities’ that can absorb the heavy rainfall by increasing the permeability of urban surfaces. ”

Successful climate action will have benefits “but we must now start asking important questions around risk ownership and the distribution of actions across society”, says Flood.

Energy specialist Brian Ó Gallachóir, of UCC Environmental Research Institute, welcomes stronger focus on local government in CAP24. With the “national climate objective” set in law, carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings in place and responsibility allocated to Government departments, new focus must be on the role of local government, “in implementing measures to meet Ireland’s national climate targets and also in supporting and mobilising climate action at the regional and local levels”, he says.

Ó Gallachóir welcomes attempts to bridge the gap between Ireland’s emissions ambition and current trends.

The Climate Action Plan’s previous iteration had carbon budgets and ceilings but subsequent EPA projections “showed Ireland is not on track to meet any of the agreed sectoral emissions ceilings or the total carbon budgets”.

CAP24 attempts to bridge this gap to ensure each sector adheres to its emissions ceiling through new policies and identifying corrective actions to ensure delivery of existing measures, he says.

These should include increased targets for retrofitting and heat pumps; further shifting of freight towards rail; managing data centre growth demand; deploying carbon capture and storage technology; and using “biogenic woody residue” to produce biochar, which can be used in water treatment, land reclamation and carbon sequestration.

The plan commits to a national campaign of communication and engagement.

“This has the goal of strengthening the social contract between the Government and the Irish people that has arisen through collaboration on climate action, which is both laudable and essential, given the challenges ahead in meeting the ambitious agreed goals,” says Ó Gallachóir.

Mobilising collective and individual action is welcome, as is acknowledgment that “different groups have difference capacities to act, and the focus on new, targeted measures to support those who have less access to resources than those who do”, he adds.

However, there is a need to look beyond economic growth, Ó Gallachóir says.

“There are some measures in CAP24 that focus on managing demand growth but discourse around them is difficult, as we see in societal discussions surrounding animal herd numbers, increased flight capacities at airports, restricting data centres growth, etc,” he explains.

“We need to find a better way to engage on these contentious topics and CAP24 is largely silent on this. Discussions that question our focus on economic growth are difficult.”

In many ways, Ireland currently has two narratives. On our GDP growth and employment it is world leading but “on our housing crisis, health-system constraints and our performance on climate and biodiversity Ireland is a basket case”, Ó Gallachóir says.

A way to discuss these conflicting narratives together has to be found, he adds.

Climate policies have relied on “nudges” in the form of taxes and grants, but to get the urgently needed paradigm shift, much bolder and braver actions are needed, FoE’s O’Neill says.

“These should be seen as opportunities to shift to a fossil-free green economy,” she adds.

Upcoming elections are unnerving for those driving climate action; political turbulence is inevitable. Already there are worrying signs of rollback on Common Agricultural Policy commitments to align EU policies and payments with its biodiversity strategy.

“All of this is as a direct result of lobbying by the agricultural sector that is not adequately scrutinised,” O’Neill says.

“There’s no guarantee political parties won’t flip-flop on climate to garner a few votes ... despite strong public support for climate action and the support of most of the political parties for the climate law and carbon budgets.”

Against that backdrop the potential for policy reversals fuelled by climate denial and disinformation on social media platforms is very serious, she says – and certainly not in Ireland’s longer-term interests.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

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