Opinion: cheaper and handier than retrofitting your house, wearing a woolly jumper out is one individual action to counter climate change

'Dancing in the disco, bumper to bumper. Wait a minute, where's me jumper?'. These lyrics fromone of Cork’s finest bands, Sultans of Ping FC (whose lead singer is now an academic), recall a bygone era when a chunky knit jumper constituted an essential accessory for the enthusiastic clubber.

Fast forward almost 30 years and the news has recently been dominated by the UN COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow, which aims to chart a path for the world to reach net zero carbon emissions by mid-century. In Ireland, our homes account for around a quarter of the country’s energy-related carbon emissions. We remain dependent on fossil fuels to keep us warm in winter. Efforts to reduce these emissions largely focus on technological solutions, such as upgrading old buildings to prevent heat loss, retrofitting and using heat pumps rather than a gas or oil boiler to warm out houses in winter.

This is not cheap. Retrofitting a house can easily cost over €50,000, while heat pumps cost upwards of €12,000 to install. Unfortunately, the expensive bit, the retrofit, has to be done first, as heat pumps are useless unless the house is well insulated.

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From RTÉ One's Claire Byrne Live, would you spend €26,000 to retrofit your house, if it cut your energy bills by 35%?

Is it possible that we are missing some cheap and easy measures that we could take right now to reduce emissions? An arresting figure, taken from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland website, is that you can reduce your heating bill by 10% by lowering your room temperature by just one degree.

Traditionally, Ireland had a real strength in a very old technology, that of the woolly jumper. Originally, Aran sweaters were hand knitted to keep fishermen warm on our Atlantic coast in winter. Fashionable beyond the Aran islands in the 1950s and 1960s, Ireland has now largely fallen out of love with the jumper.

There are many reasons for this. Pictures of young people from abroad on TV wearing T-shirts, indoors and out, certainly play a role. Geordie Shore, set in Newcastle upon Tyne, is perhaps the most egregious example, with practically mandatory T-shirts for the male cast despite the city being one of the coldest in England. The rise of gym culture and weightlifting has also contributed to this trend, as the T-shirt is ideal to show off your muscles, virtue signalling to others that you work out. Finally, and ominously, Ireland has already warmed significantly, allowing us to dispense with our jumpers. The climate of even 20 years ago is now gone, perhaps forever.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Tony Candon from the National Museum of Ireland on how an Aran jumper ended up on show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York

Despite the neglect of the jumper for almost half a century, I feel we're starting to see the first glimmers of a resurgence in practical, warm clothing. The catalyst for this change is the simple fact that you are far less likely to catch Covid-19 outdoors than inside.

The move to outdoor living during lockdown led to a dramatic change in our lifestyles as coffee shops and restaurants suddenly appeared in repurposed horseboxes, shipping containers and Airstreams. With nothing else to do, there was an explosion of interest in walking, cycling, running and swimming outdoors. As Ireland collectively realised it was possible to survive outdoors in the Irish winter, a resurgence in practical clothing occurred. Thermal base layers (your Mum called them vests!) and Parka jackets from brands like Canada Goose became intensely fashionable, then rapidly unavailable as supply dried up.

So where does all this leave the jumper? When the Guardian reports that thermal underwear is ‘the new party wear’ for young city dwellers forced to socialise outdoors as temperatures drop, you have to imagine that we are on the cusp of a woolly jumper revival.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Dave Fanning Show, visual historian Linda King on the high profile stars and celebrities who have taken a shine to the Aran jumper

What is missing here is for the existing trend to dress warmly outside to move indoors, allowing us to turn down our heating and reduce climate change. As always, youth culture will have to be at the vanguard of any jumper revival. Since young people have most to lose as our planet heats up, the motivation is certainly there to ditch the T-shirt inside.

Although addressing climate change can seem overwhelming, in many ways, the difficult thing is often to just make the decision, to make a start. Decide to leave coal in the ground and Adam Smith’s ‘Invisible Hand’ will unleash the free market to roll out wind turbines.

Of course, deciding to fish out unloved knitwear from the back of your wardrobe this weekend instead of turning on the heating isn’t going to save the Earth. However, individual action is undoubtedly part of the collective action urgently needed to solve the climate emergency. Let’s start with the jumper.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ