Opinion: we aren't doing enough to tackle climate change, but "invisible" or "passive" decisions are nudging us to go green

It is beyond doubt that the way we get around, heat our homes and power our industries contribute to pollution and rapid resource depletion. Besides avoiding climate change and international pressure to act, there are huge long-term benefits to tackling this problem. But given the scale of the challenge, it seems as if we are doing little.

Comparing our projected emissions with those which will allow for a stable future climate, we see a significant gap. Ireland is performing particularly badly, but this can be said for the world as a whole. The fight against climate change requires many solutions, the deployment of many technologies, changes in many policies and every effort to get on target.

From RTÉ Radio One's Countrywide, an interview with Mark Howden, Vice Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Many of these actions are highly visible such as solar panels on our homes for renewable electricity, converting to wood chip boilers for low carbon heating and electric cars for low carbon transport. All of these examples are an essential part of the transition and they all require an "active" decision to be made, but we see very slow uptake of these technologies. Despite the availability of grants and other supports, research from SEAI tells us that it takes time and effort. A push like this towards electric transport or heat will take a long time and many "active" decisions. Changing a boiler or buying a new car is not done on a whim.

However, there are elements of the fight against climate change that we can’t easily see, known as "invisible" or "passive" decisions. These don’t require planning or commitment on our behalf as they are made at a policy level. Essentially, without explicitly choosing to do so, you may already be going green. This may seem as if control is being taken from the customer, but it is far more effective than waiting for each individual to make the leap. It also offers the potential advantages of economies of scale, better oversight, less inertia, lower individual costs and less potential to scam the system.

From RTÉ Radio One's Today With Sean O'Rourke, former President of Ireland and ex-UN envoy on climate change Mary Robinson discusses the IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming

One example of this is the biofuel obligation scheme in Ireland, which means that we are purchasing renewable transport fuels at the pumps perhaps without realising it. The government has compelled transport fuel suppliers to blend petrol and diesel with biofuels like corn ethanol, or biodiesel from waste cooking oil. It's eight percent by volume today and will increase to 10 percent in January 2019. By dictating minimum shares, it is up to the companies to decide how to achieve it and, as companies do, they will look for the lowest cost solution subject to sustainability criteria. This has led to significant and consistent carbon savings.

A similar concept to the biofuel obligation scheme is the blending of renewable or green gas into the natural gas grid. Properly treated and upgraded biogas (gaseous fuel from the breakdown of organic material) is known as biomethane and has very similar properties to natural gas and can in fact be used as a substitute fuel. Given that there are almost 700,000 connections to the gas grid, including domestic heating and cooking as well as large industries, blending biomethane in the grid offers the opportunity to switch these customers over to renewable energy without any effort on their part. The same infrastructure and machines that use natural gas could be powered by biomethane. This avoids the often expensive and onerous task of switching out appliances.

From RTÉ Radio One's News At One, chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council, Professor John Fitzgerald on how Ireland's efforts to meet emissions targets are deteriorating

Work by MaREI shows that half a million electric vehicles or a quarter of a million electric heat pumps, as the government have aimed for, will yield carbon savings of 2.3 million tonnes each to 2030. This is equivalent to increasing the biofuel obligation scheme by three percent or by introducing a very small (less than two percent) green gas obligation in the natural gas grid, both of which are arguably more achievable due to the much smaller number of "active" decisions required. These carbon savings would not just apply to those already in a position to upgrade their car or heating system, taking advantage of generous subsidies they may not need, but could be used to decarbonise public transport for example.

I am not suggesting we allow "invisible" decisions to be the only effort we make in combating climate change. What I want to emphasise is that both are required, but only our government has the ability to make these "passive" decisions for us and try get out ahead of our dwindling carbon budget. We need to invest in a range of technologies, not continue our hitherto narrow focus on renewable electricity. The cost of dealing with climate change only increases the longer we wait.

The ball isn’t in the court of any one group here and it is up to both individuals and governments to act. In anticipation of us switching to low carbon alternatives for our electricity, heat, and transport, we have the potential to contribute a lot. Even the small changes in our daily habits such as cycling or using public transport, altering our diets and turning down the heating can lead to large drops in our carbon footprints without any real effect on our lives. It’s time for us to make "active" decisions and for the government to make "passive" ones for us.


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