Opinion: when will our elected representatives take the various impacts from climate change seriously enough to consider a carbon budget?

Next week, the Dáil will debate Ireland's 2019 financial budget. But when will our representatives take our health and welfare impacts from climate change seriously enough to debate Ireland's fair share carbon budget?In Ireland, we produce about 8.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide (tCO2) per person per year. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are emitted by the fuels we choose to provide our heat, transport and electricity, as well as the fuels and processes used to manufacture and transport the goods and services produced in Ireland.

As a nation, we produce half the CO2 per person of the average American, 25 percent more than the average European, double the world average, four times the average Indian and over 25 times the average Kenyan. To stop warming the climate, we know that we must reduce our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, but by how much and by when?

From RTÉ One News, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on how a low-carbon economy will require major changes

The latest analysis feeding into the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on 1.5°C due for this in October 2018 points to the reality that the average person’s CO2 emissions need to be zero or even negative before 2050. Not low carbon, ZERO carbon.

Climate change is not our grandchildren’s problem as is so often espoused by elder states. people who are often double the average age (37) of Irish citizens. Scientists understand that to stop man-made temperature increasing, humans must stop emitting CO2.

More accurately, humans must balance the greenhouse gases emitted by our energy, industry, consumption and food choices, with ways of capturing greenhouse gases before they get to the earth’s atmospheric commons. To stop temperature increase, we must stop net CO2 emissions. The temperature at which the increased warming stops, and when temperature stabilises, depends on the cumulative amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. This cumulative amount of CO2 emitted that results in a temperature peak is called a "carbon budget".

A carbon budget is the cumulative amount of carbon dioxide emitted from a specific start year that would push the global mean temperature to peak at a specified temperature limit

Cumulative emissions of man-made CO2 is the primary driver behind warming the world. The average global temperature increases about half a degree Celsius for every trillion tonnes. about half a degree Celsius for every trillion tonnes. The remaining cumulative CO2 emissions that would result in a 1.5˚C or 2˚C temperature increase with a given probability can be ascribed to a total carbon budget, measured in tonnes of CO2 (tCO2) over a period of time. Detlef Van Vuuren (2016) points to the simple strength of this near linear relationship in that,

(1) Long-term temperature stabilisation does not depend on CO2 emissions at a specific time,

(2) Near-term emissions are most important as they also rapidly exhaust the remaining carbon budget

(3) CO2 emissions will need to be phased out to net zero eventually to achieve temperature stabilisation.

Let's apply this to each of us individually and collectively. I was born in 1981 and the average Irish person has emitted 340 tCO2 per head in my lifetime. Remember that our per person CO2 emissions are currently 8.5 tCO2 per year. All else remaining equal, this would result in 646tCO2 per Irish lifespan into the future. If each person on earth had this same lifestyle, the global collective CO2 emissions over the next three generations (82 years) would be approximately 6,500 GtCO2. This is equivalent to greater than 3°C warming from CO2 alone and likely greater than 4°C warming with associated other greenhouse gases from agricultural methane and nitrous oxide.

As a nation, we produce half the CO2 per person of the average American, 25 percent more than the average European and double the world average

We must emit less than 1,000 GtCO2 to keep the average temperature increase below 2°C, and less than 500 GtCO2 to stay well below 2°C pursing a 1.5°C limit. So how do we do this fairly? If you were to give every person on the planet their equal slice of the remaining 2°C carbon budget, it would be about 100 tonnes of CO2 per person, for their lifetime. This is a rather simplified approach, and ignores historical emissions, responsibility, capacity, equity and justice complexities, but is useful to illustrate a point.

If we were to have personal carbon budgets, the same way we have to budget our family income, what would this be like? You know how much money you hope to earn over your life. You get a mortgage for your home in the hope that you’ll achieve your projected cumulative earnings before you retire, enough to pay for your house and interest to the bank.

From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Professor John FitzGerald, Chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council, discusses if electricity customers should pay for carbon emissions

But how much are you willing to bet on your cumulative carbon budget, or taking an overdraft on your carbon budget? Will your children inherit your carbon debt in the form of runaway climate change? Will you pass on water shortages and fodder crises in the the 2-3°C-warmer summer and flooding and storm damage during the winter to them? When you're 70, will your pension be vulnerable to your carbon debt through financial insurance markets volatility through uninsurable risks? Perhaps your pension fund will be spent on national critical flooding adaption measures in a "bail out" of a different type. Will we need to ensure our flood defences really are "too big to fail"?

If you have a 100 tCO2 cabon budget allowance for your life-time, how would you spread your fair share of the global carbon budget over your 80 year life expectancy? You could spread your carbon budget thinly over your whole life and that would roughly equate to 1.2 tCO2 per year. For scale, the average European family car currently emits 2 tCO2 per year, as does one transatlantic flight or one cow.

Would the unsustainable expectation of a more carbon intensive lifestyle be like an enjoyable Irish night out, prioritising tonight over tomorrow? We spend our weekly budget on whiskey and beer tonight, and then we’re left with a hangover in the morning and nothing for dinner for the rest of the week. This is currently how we are binging on carbon, with no budgeting for the future.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke show in 2014, John Keogh, Chief Executive Solid Fuel Trade Group; Eamon Timmins froom Age Action Ireland and former Green Party senator Dan Boyle discuss increase to carbon taxes

Would you plant a biologically diverse forest to capture CO2 to try to grow your personal carbon budget or even sell carbon permits to your friends and neighbours?? Would you like to print money relative to the amount of clean energy you generate or carbon you capture as the value of this ecosystem service increases into the future? Maybe money really does grow on trees. 

A carbon budget does not inform how you could choose to spend your carbon budget, but it does link your individual local choices to the global temperature stabilisation target. To slow down the rate we are rapidly burning through our carbon budget and make your fair share carbon budget last as long as possible you could consider the following steps that you can do today. One is focused on the man we point the finger at and one on the action we all can take.

(1) Demand Climate Action commensurate with the Paris Agreement now. Demand zero carbon HEAT and zero carbon TRANSPORT from your local elected representative. Tell them that climate change will bring more than frequent potholes to our parishes.

(2) Reduce superfluous carbon intensive habits and consumption from your life. The CO2 emission reductions you maintain over your lifetime are more important than a momentary reduction you achieve in a single year.

For ideas, solutions and timelines, our recent paper on zero carbon energy system pathways for Ireland consistent with the Paris Agreement is available for free here

The next time a politician comes knocking on your door asking for your vote, ask them what their carbon budget is and how do they plan to avoid driving the country into carbon debt. I encourage you to demand our representatives to commend their carbon budget to the Dáil come next months’ budget day. The clock is ticking. 


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