It sounds almost a cliché to say that last year was a year of weather extremes. After all, which year out of the last 20 hasn’t been? After all, according to the WMO, the past eight years have been the eight hottest on the instrumental record. Yes, all eight. Hottest of all was 2016, the last El Niño year. Since then, around another 300 billion tons of heat-trapping gases have been released into the global atmosphere. The next El Niño may be as soon as later this year. Hold onto your hats. I filed the below for the Business Post as a review of global climate change in 2022.
IT IS LIKELY that 2022 will be remembered as another year of living dangerously, as climate destabilisation moved ever closer to home and, in the process, became impossible to ignore.
The summer of 2022 was the hottest in at least 500 years in Europe, the hottest on instrumental record in China, and the second hottest across both Asia and North America. Britain recorded its highest-ever temperatures, with the mercury touching 40.3°C in mid-July. This led to fires sweeping around the edges of London, and some rail lines buckling in the heat.
Scientists from the World Weather Attribution group calculated that such extreme European temperatures, which led to at least 20,000 excess deaths, would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change.
None of this was unexpected. Earlier in the year, the synthesis report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that it was “now or never” on addressing the climate emergency. The IPCC report spelled out in the plainest language the risks of fast-rising global temperatures, yet the political and social response has been muted.
Pakistan and India are two populous countries already close to the limits of human heat tolerance. Last March, a heatwave swept the region, bringing the hottest conditions in at least a century, with temperatures frequently above 50°C.
This heatwave eventually abated, only to be followed by devastating flooding, killing over 1,700 people, leaving millions homeless and causing billions of euro in damage. Attribution studies confirmed that the extreme heat waves and flooding events had been made more likely and more severe as a result of global warming.
After global emissions fell slightly as a result of Covid lockdowns, by 2021 they had rebounded to their highest level in history, with every indication that 2022 will have seen emissions continue on an upward trajectory.
The hottest topic in Ireland this year was how to divvy up our ambitious 2030 target of cutting national emissions by 51 per cent. After intense political wrangling and lobbying by the industrial livestock sector, agriculture (Ireland’s largest polluting sector, with over a third of all emissions) was given special treatment in being set a 25 per cent goal, which is half of the national target.
An analysis by the Climate Change Advisory Council of the sectoral emissions budgets indicated that, assuming full implementation, they added up to just a 43 per cent cut at best – and even this excluded land use change, which is another major source of carbon.
The transport sector has been set a 50 per cent target, and despite government hype about electric cars, in reality such a dramatic reduction can come about only as a result of a decisive modal shift away from the private car and towards public and active transport. This is proving a tough nut to crack.
In 2021, more than half the funding provided by government to rural local authorities on cycling and pedestrian infrastructure went unspent, while one third of funding in the greater Dublin area was unused. The situation in 2022 was at least as bad – with Galway, for instance, drawing down just 6 per cent of its active travel budget. The Irish public remains wedded to the private car, and politicians are markedly reluctant to take actions seen to antagonise motorists.
Anxiety around climate spilled over into direct action in 2022, as Just Stop Oil activists garnered headlines around the world by throwing soup at a (protected) Van Gogh painting. The response of the British government has been to criminalise non-violent protests – a position disgracefully supported by Keir Starmer, the Labour leader – but there is little indication that this will deter activists.
This year’s big climate showcase event, COP 27, took place in Egypt. During his address, then taoiseach Micheál Martin warned that “our citizens will become increasingly cynical, weary and hopeless if words are not urgently matched by deeds”.
That sense of cynicism will have been sharpened by the revelation in this newspaper that commitments Martin signed up to at the 2021 COP conference on cutting methane by 30 per cent by 2030 have been quietly scrapped, while livestock emissions continue to spiral.
While the COP 27 conference once again fell far short of what is needed, the Irish delegation led by Eamon Ryan, the climate minister, scored a notable success in having the “loss and damage” provision strengthened. This commits high-emitting countries to compensate developing countries already suffering severe climate impacts.
With Leo Varadkar back as Taoiseach, his altogether more lukewarm approach to climate action is likely to dominate the coalition. Mary Lou McDonald underlined Sinn Féin’s ambivalence on climate when she offered her party’s unconditional support to the continued expansion of the dairy industry, despite its devastating impact in both emissions and water pollution. Ironically, the only farms Sinn Féin appear to have any issue with are wind farms.
While yielding to lobbyists can seem the smart play politically, it may also be storing up electoral trouble. A survey published late last year by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that an astonishing 84 per cent of people were either “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change.
The EPA report proves there is a huge groundswell of public support for strong climate action in Ireland, but it has yet to find its political voice – with special interest and Nimby groups continuing to have the ear of politicians, for now.
Ireland has so far escaped the very worst impacts of climate change, which may explain the widespread complacency among many in politics and public administration. In continental Europe, the rapid drying up of mighty rivers, from the Loire in France to the Po in Italy and the Rhine in Germany, as well as a major decline in food production after the worst drought in 500 years, has come as both an economic and psychological blow.
Better news came from Brazil with the ousting of the far-right administration led by Jair Bolsonaro, whose policies pushed the Amazon rainforest perilously close to the tipping point of ecological system collapse. Incoming president Lula da Silva has promised to reverse the destruction. In the US, unexpected mid-term successes for the Democrats have kept president Joe Biden’s relatively progressive climate agenda alive.
A turbulent year finished on an upbeat note with the COP 15 biodiversity conference in Montreal agreeing a landmark deal committing to the protection of 30 per cent of land and oceans by 2030, along with a slew of other measures.
While 190 nations signed up to what has been described as the Paris Agreement for Biodiversity, the enduring challenge is in enforcement and the political will to face down vested interests. Whether actions match the fine words at Montreal will become clear in 2023.