In 2018, when climate scientists laid out what it would take to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the conclusion was stark: “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
The words could not have been clearer, but they did not ignite action. Years ticked by, greenhouse gas emissions climbed to new highs.
This summer, however, may mark a positive inflection point. Climate action in the United States appeared dead until, suddenly last week, it wasn’t. Key Democrats in the Senate agreed to a deal that could see the U.S. reduce its emissions by 40 per cent by 2030. It would be an essential pillar in the global fight against climate heating – one doomed to fail without U.S. leadership.
But it is a global fight, in which the effort of every country counts. A day after the U.S. deal came the resolution of another complicated and domestically controversial climate debate. This one was in Ireland – where the acrimony of climate politics mirrors that of the U.S. and Canada.
It’s a lesson for everyone: No country has it easy; all choices are difficult.
Amid a European heat wave that saw Dublin hit 33 C, the hottest ever in the city and 12 C above normal, the Irish government and a leading industry were in a fierce debate over emission-reduction targets for different sectors of the economy. Sound familiar?
Agriculture was at the centre of it. How much emissions farmers could, or could not, cut dominated political coverage in Ireland in recent weeks. The country aims to halve its emissions by 2030, and agriculture is Ireland’s biggest emitter, at more than a third of the total.
Agriculture is also central to Ireland’s identity. It defines the verdant rural countryside. Ireland is well known for its beef and dairy, much of it exported. And it’s not industrial-scale farming. The opposite is true: It’s mostly family-run farms. The average herd is 66 cattle.
While Ireland wants to cut emissions from areas like power generation by 75 per cent, the target range for agriculture was 22 to 30 per cent. Farmers insisted 22 was the most they could do, and that any more would be ruinous. Environmentalists wanted 30. The final call came last Thursday, a surprise after it looked like a deal wouldn’t happen. The government set a 25-per-cent emissions cut for farmers.
Farmers were asked to do only half as much as the national goal, yet industry reaction was negative. The Irish Farmers Association worried about the “survival of rural Ireland,” and the milk association declared the target “impossible” to achieve. There was also fretful talk of “herd reduction” – fewer cattle – even as the government insisted that wouldn’t be necessary.
Scratch out agriculture from the above and write in oil, and the story is a lot like the debate in Canada. The latest move here also came in late July, an official step toward the government’s election promise to cap oil and natural gas emissions.
This is obviously necessary. Canada can’t cut total emissions by 40 per cent in 2030 if GHGs from oil climb higher.
The Pembina Institute has argued the oil industry can slash its emissions with current technology. The industry – like Irish farmers – is skeptical. Exxon Mobil-owned Imperial Oil said Ottawa’s goal for the sector is “very aggressive and stretches the capability of what is technically and economically feasible.” Cenovus Energy suggested the targets were impossible to reach and oil output would have to be cut. That forgets the fact that Canada’s oil and gas production rose 16 per cent from 2014 to 2019 while emissions fell 1 per cent.
What’s absent is the can-do attitude industry often otherwise displays.
This page has repeatedly argued big oil companies need to be more ambitious. Cenovus booked a profit of $2.4-billion in the second quarter of this year but it has earmarked just $1-billion, over five years, for emissions cuts. With windfall profits, industry can and should shoulder a lot more, never mind the $7.1-billion in taxpayer-funded subsidies Ottawa has offered for carbon capture technology.
Whether it is the U.S., Ireland, Canada – or any country – major emitting industries have to change. The science cannot be clearer: A fundamental overhaul is required. And the biggest emitters, whether cows in Ireland or oil in Canada, are expected to deliver. It’s time to stop saying targets are too difficult, and to start figuring out how to make them happen.
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