"The Blue Marble" Dec 7 1972 by Apollo 17 crew / NASA overlayed with French Flag.

What’s the deal with carbon emission deals at COP21 Paris?

With talks started in Paris there is a flutter of attention on climate change this week. The biggest questions focus on whether a new agreement will be reached, will it be honoured and, most importantly, will it be enough? After the recent attack on Paris the presence of 147 world leaders in the city has come at a tense time. Climate change marches were cancelled due to the terrorist threat and instead hundreds of shoes were left at the Place de Republic in place of a human demonstration last Sunday. A human chain was formed along the previously planned march route however, with a gap left at the Bataclan theatre to mark the loss of lives during the attack.

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Artworks on the theme of climate change and its challenges are spread throughout the city. The Paris attack could threaten to distract from the issue at hand, climate change, as attendance at the conference marks an “act of defiance” against terrorism according to US President Obama. On the other hand, there has been a greater sense of publicised urgency surrounding climate change in the past few months and the attack on Paris could become a further rallying point in favour of a strong agreement.

“What greater rejection of those who would tear down our world than marshalling our best efforts to save it,” said President Obama 

The current Kyoto Protocol on carbon emissions expires in 2020 and a new agreement needs to be reached to take its place. The last effort to reach a binding deal in Copenhagen 2009 was unsuccessful. Protests and demonstrations around the world last weekend called for the leaders at the summit to agree to a limit of 2 degrees celsius of global warming. The Kyoto Protocol called for a 20% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 by 2020 and the EU claimed it is on target to meet this reduction achieving 18% by 2012 with the help of a carbon trading scheme not without its controversies. The protocol is criticised for not doing enough to curb climate change and the pressure not to compromise environmental values for political and economic interests is high in Paris 2015. According to the UN climate chief current voluntary post-2020 pledges of carbon curbing would still place carbon emissions over 2 degrees celsius. Maintaining global warming at less than 2 degrees celsius will be a world-wide challenge due to developing nations industrialising and the increased energy demands of the modern world which require ever increasing energy and therefore further emission reductions from developed nations. The topic of financial aid for lesser developed countries who are effected by climate change while producing only a fraction of the carbon emissions which cause the problem is also on the agenda.The danger is that a reasonably achieved target, agreeable to political and economic interest groups, will be set rather than what we actually need to combat climate change. At the same time a target set too high might not be honoured at all meaning even less progress would be made. These are the challenges faced by policy makers and politicians at the talks.

Photo “Earthrise” by NASA / Bill Anders taken on Apollo8 mission Dec 24 1968

Much of the future reductions will come from industry and the switch to greener forms of energy such as wind, wave and solar power but the effort cannot be solely top-down. Individuals must play their part and governments must make all efforts to educate people in low carbon lifestyle practises and introduce legislation to encourage environmentally responsible behaviour. The plastic bag charge in Ireland is one such example but Ireland remains among very few countries to have such a scheme. Plastic is calculated to emit anywhere from 1 to 5 ounces of CO2 for every ounce of plastic. The plastic bag scheme rids us of a large portion of CO2 but unnecessary single-use plastic still surrounds us everywhere from plastic bottles to fruit and vegetable packaging and this is a residential sector carbon footprint we can reduce with a change in thinking similar to that which occurred with the introduction of the plastic bag levy. The reduction of plastic is only one way in which we can reduce our footprint. Direct energy consumption is the most obvious reduction we can focus on. The residential sector accounts for 23% of Ireland’s energy consumption and only 23% of Ireland’s electricity came from renewable sources in 2015 which is a far cry away from what we could achieve. Ireland’s current electricity grid can accommodation up to 50% clean energy but at 23% we are not producing that level of clean energy. With wind and solar technology becoming cheaper and more accessible this is an area we can improve upon and create demand for as consumers. The use of ocean wave energy is being tested in Galway and could become a massive source of potential clean energy. What is clear however is that Ireland is not currently reaching its potential in this sector.

Perhaps this highlights one of the key problems of the climate change talks. Targets are set based on what they think we can reasonably accomplish towards mitigating the effects of climate change. The targets do not incentivise or motivate politicians to drive reductions beyond the target level simply because it is the right thing to do. When climate change does effect us in some way in Ireland, such as this weekend’s rain, we pass it off as unusual weather. But the unusual has become normal. While 2 degrees celsius or more one way or the other may not seem excessive in our temperate climate it can cause extreme weather patterns that will negatively effect others and eventually us, if not directly, then indirectly, through the resulting worldwide political and economic instability. Climate change often effects populations far away from us we cannot see and are therefore easier for us to ignore. But droughts, melting icecaps and rising sea temperatures increase desertification, effect water supplies and the ability to grow crops and decrease fish populations, which can be the difference between survival and death for many populations around the world. The timing of the attack on Paris connected the Syrian refugee crisis and the climate change talks temporarily but unless an ambitious deal rather than a reasonable deal is reached we will see the issue of climate refugees, which already exist, become a permanent political reality in the future.