Climate Q&A with MaREI Researchers

For Science Week 2019 we answered climate questions from the public on thejournal.ie

 

  1. In light of this week’s news, what can we do about energy companies and their emissions, particularly in relation to them not reporting when they happen?

 Professor Brian Ó Gallachóir

In MaREI, we work with and advise energy companies through collaborative research projects. In these projects, we assist them both in reducing their emissions and in identifying opportunities and strategic pathways for them to lead the way in the energy transition to a low carbon future. One example includes our research with ESB on using electricity to substitute for fossil fuel use in heat (using heat pumps) and transport (using electric vehicles). A second example is our research with Gas Networks Ireland that underpinned their recent strategy to move to a net zero GHG emissions gas network by 2050.

 

  1. Do you think that with carbon taxes we will be able to reach our emission reduction goals, or do you think it will require other measures and if so, which ones?

 Jason Mc Guire

Carbon taxes will make up part of the solution for Ireland’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions targets. The taxes will discourage the use of fossil fuels but we must ensure Ireland’s fuel poverty issue does not worsen so extra fuel poverty allowance in conjunction with more incentivised retrofits and less carbon intensive technologies should help us to achieve GHG targets without hurting the vulnerable.

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Shane McDonagh

The problem might be in the question. As a society we greatly underestimate the scale of the change required, no one, two, or even ten solutions will do, we need everything in the toolbox. An effective carbon tax is an absolute must, but it needs to be paired with the right incentives, research and investment into new technologies, education, and infrastructural change.

I would say in addition to a carbon tax which I believe should be applied not just to fuels, we need to overhaul our planning process with an emphasis on sustainability, mandate minimum shares of renewable energy across all sectors (not just electricity), change our agricultural practices and our diets, and promote resource efficiency.

However, this all starts with an informed public voting for informed politicians who can make sure that this is done equitably.

 

  1. Dublin Airport passenger numbers have increased rapidly and there are even plans for an expansion. Would this expansion be a significant contributor to Ireland’s carbon emissions and if so, how should this be managed over the next 30 years?

Jason Mc Guire

No. International Aviation is a tricky sector to monitor and it is not included in Irelands GHG emissions. Instead International Aviation in monitored by the EU under the EU emission trading scheme (ETS). In 2021 the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) aims to cap global international aviation GHG emissions at 2020 levels, so International Aviation does not fall under Ireland’s GHG emissions and it is being managed by CORSIA.

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Shane McDonagh

We are researching ways to produce aviation fuels from crops and electricity but it is currently very expensive and the volume required is enormous and growing.

Flying is an energy-intensive activity, and yes it would increase our emissions, but aviation emissions are difficult to count because it is not easy to tell whose balance sheet they should land on. Ireland is at a disadvantage as an island but where possible we should focus on promoting rail as it is far better for the environment, like the bullet trains in Japan.

 

  1. Why is it that the general public must make the changes and pay extra for the likes of coffee cups? Why aren’t we addressing the manufacturers of these products and plastics and taxing them?

Emma Verling

There is no reason why we cannot do both. Everyone should take personal responsibility for the waste they generate, both by paying for it and by disposing of it appropriately. The example of disposable coffee cups is a good one because 20 years ago, people walking around with disposable cups was a rare sight. Now it is a cultural norm, and this is what needs to change. Strategies such as taxing manufacturers are only part of the solution, but culture eats strategy for breakfast! This could be clearly seen from the introduction of the plastic bag tax 20 years ago. People’s behaviour can change overnight if they see a direct impact on their lives. And these small changes they make can then have long lasting positive impacts for the planet and everyone on it.

As a side note, I feel that the ocean plastics issue has been conflated somewhat with climate change and often both are often discussed together in the media. I think this could be confusing people – I would see them as two somewhat separate issues, though clearly the amount of waste we generate and how it’s disposed of will impact climate change.

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Jason Mc Guire

We should be but it is a slow process when addressing manufacturers, also if consumers don’t pay for coffee cups, there will be no profit for manufacturers.

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Shane McDonagh

Many manufacturers are, and by making the change now we’re encouraging more to do so. Vote with your wallet continues to send signals to these companies. A great example is buying your coffee somewhere that offers a discount to those who bring their own cup, you can pay off your cup over time with the savings, avoid waste, and hopefully, others will follow suit.

We should also set a deadline to phase out single-use plastic but in reality, if we tax companies without also promoting sustainable alternatives they will simply pass on that cost.

 

  1. How do we start to protect homes in coastal areas from the effects of climate change?

 Jimmy Murphy

Climate Change with the associated increases in sea levels and storm intensity challenges how we should strategise erosion and flood protection along our coastlines.  The simple truth is that given enough resources, engineering solutions could be put in place to protect all properties– after all about 4 million people are living below sea level in The Netherlands. However, this would not be practical and decisions need to be made in terms of what we should protect and what should be let go and this is where the difficulty lies.  Nobody wants to see their homes flooded or falling into the sea but in some cases, this is inevitable as the overall cost to benefit ratio will be too low to justify protection works.  For the majority of Irish coastal cities, towns, and villages it is clear that protection will be provided and this will mean building higher and wider structures such as seawalls and revetments along the seafront to hold the position of the coastline.  In other cases, where there is only a small number of properties, the decision may be to allow them to be lost.  This is happening worldwide but in some European Countries and the United States, a re-location programme is provided by the government to help the affected people.  We are beginning to hear the term ‘climate refugees’ in relation to people who have been displaced by climate change impacts and the numbers will increase in the coming years.

Reverting to the question as to how we start protecting homes, the construction of barrier structures to stop erosion or flooding is the obvious solution.  However, such structures are expensive, can negatively impact the coastal environment and often are not popular with the general public as they break the visual connection with the sea.  Therefore, there is a responsibility on engineers and scientists to develop new flexible and adaptable solutions that take advantage of the advanced forecasting and warning systems that are available.  In doing so we can help minimise the loss of property that will occur

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Stephen Flood

There are a number of measures we can take over the short, medium and long term to protect homes in coastal communities. In the short term we can look at increasing property level flood defences such as the use of sandbags and mountable defences. Over the medium to long term coastal communities need to consider increased drainage, pumping to remove saltwater intrusion, and coastal barrages and barriers in combination with softer measures such as dune nourishment and planting. A longer-term option may include an element of resettlement and abandonment of some coastal dwellings where the costs of continued protection are deemed higher than the benefit of defending them. The good news is that coastal communities can start planning for the impact of increasing coastal erosion and flooding today to make their communities resilient to the coastal related impacts of climate change in the future.

 

  1. Do you think we’ll reach a point in Ireland where we’re able to sell electricity back to the grid? What needs to happen for that to become a reality?

 Emma Verling

This has been happening in the UK for some time, so there is no reason why it should not happen here. My understanding is that the grid infrastructure is not currently in place to allow it. This is compounded by the fact that PV solar panels etc are expensive and beyond many people’s reach. What needs to happen is that the cost of installations such as solar panels needs to come down (better grant schemes, although a new grant scheme was announced some months ago, which may help) and the infrastructure needs to be in place to allow it to be fed back to the grid to allow individuals to be paid for it.

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Jason Mc Guire

 Yes. Owners of residential Solar PV panels will soon be able to sell electricity back to the grid provided they have good inverters which provide good quality electricity.

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Shane McDonagh

Yes, and our electricity suppliers and network operators are planning for this. What is likely to happen is that electricity will flow both directions throughout the day for those who can install significant amounts of solar or even wind energy. For that to happen effectively our electricity grid needs to be improved and each home hoping to benefit would need a new “smart meter”.

 

  1. How long has climate change been going on?

Emma Verling

The climate is not static and is in a constant state of flux, but what has been happening in recent decades due to human activity is that the rate of change is far greater (more change in a shorter period of time).

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Hester Whyte

The Climate has always changed and will continue to do so, but it is the rate at which it is changing that is the issue. Certain impacts are already being felt so it’s important to not ignore this.

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Jason Mc Guire

Since the beginning of time, we go through Ice Ages every 80,000years and warm periods every 20,000years. We are coming out of a warm period right now. This warm period peaked about 8,000years ago then we started cooling. About 300years ago in the Industrial revolution, the human impact of climate change can be seen. Not only are we not cooling down anymore but we are heating up to record temperatures.

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Dr. Clare Noone

CO2 pumped into the atmosphere by fossil fuel burning and other human activities are the most significant greenhouse gas contributing to the climate change we are experiencing.

In 1958, Charles David Keeling, became the first person to make frequent measurements of atmospheric CO2 concentrations on top of Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii. The measurements collected show an increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration from 313 (ppmv) in March 1958 to 410 (ppmv) in November 2019. Before the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the global average CO2 was about 280 ppm.

Today there is a network of atmospheric stations measuring long term CO2 around the globe, and we have one of the most important ones, right here in Ireland. Mace Head atmospheric research station, Carna, Co. Galway began monitoring atmospheric observations in 1958 and today Mace Head and Mauna Loa are two of the most advanced and important sites for atmospheric observations in the world. Data from both sites are published in multiple research publications and cited by bodies such as IPCC.

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Jared Peters

Climate change has likely been taking place since shortly after Earth developed an atmosphere.  However, this is something of a loaded and potentially problematic question.  Focusing on the normality of change in general without recognising the importance and severity of modern climate change would be a mistake since the anthropogenic climate change we see today is different in rate and magnitude from earlier natural counterparts.  Furthermore, mistakenly considering climate change to be less important or inconsequential because it has happened in the past would be irrational under any circumstance—akin to pondering if diseases are important because they’ve been common for a long time.

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Shane McDonagh

The climate is always changing, but the man-made rapid and unprecedented change we see now is precipitated by the industrial revolution. The discovery of fossil fuels has undoubtedly been great in terms of living standards, but the population and resource consumption explosion that followed has put pressure on our planet. You can tie climate change as we know it almost directly to human-induced carbon dioxide emissions.

 

  1. Are we going to see more severe weather events in this country and what will they look like? 

Jason Mc Guire

Yes. More frequent and more severe. There may be nothing we can do to prevent these weather events in the next few years but if we act now maybe we can lessen the weather events after 2050.

 

  1. What is the estimated increase in global mean temperatures worldwide if we don’t decrease our carbon emissions?

 Jason Mc Guire

About 3-4degC by 2100

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Shane McDonagh

The Paris agreement has set a limit of 2°C of warming, with an aim for 1.5°C. This might sound very small but as a global average it is hugely significant, and it hides the fact that the extremes will increase drastically. The warming is felt most at the poles too meaning ice caps will melt and accelerate the process. How much we miss our targets by is related to how much hotter it will become.

 

  1. Is it better for the environment to keep old appliances that aren’t as efficient until they die or to replace but then have to dispose of the old ones?

 Jason Mc Guire

Very good question and each product will have a different answer! Some questions we must ask when trying to figure this out includes – How much more efficient is the new model? How much sustainable and non-sustainable material is used in the appliance? How will the old appliance be disposed of?

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Shane McDonagh

This is complicated and depends on a few factors. Something like an old petrol car being swapped for an electric vehicle tends to have an environmental benefit quite quickly, but a washing machine, for example, is tricky. It depends on how much you use it and how inefficient it is. If your fridge doesn’t seal right and is quite old, swapping it for a well-insulated and efficient new model makes sense as it is always plugged in. If you put on a wash three times a week, getting a machine that works at a lower temperature can help the planet and your pocket. Likewise when swapping an old tumble dryer for a condenser dryer that will help heat your home instead of piping the hot air outside. However, it rarely makes sense to scrap a relatively new item unless it is particularly poor performing.

 

  1. Why do you think there is still resistance despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that we need to act now on climate change?

 Emma Verling

I think there is resistance because the issue appears so vast and insurmountable that people think small changes they make won’t make a difference. I also think there has been a perception (incorrectly) that climate change will impact other places and not Ireland, though this is starting to change. In addition, dealing with climate change means everyone making changes in the way they live their lives and perhaps giving up conveniences that appear essential. This type of change can be difficult for people to accept when they cannot see a tangible, short term benefit to them. In addition, high profile ‘climate change deniers’ still get airtime (though this is thankfully reducing) and at times, rejecting climate change can be an anti-establishment statement.

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Hester Whyte

People feel the climate change problem is much bigger than they are and therefore feel overwhelmed which has a paralysing effect, “what difference can I make?”  Showing how small changes, if done by many, can actually help is important to empower people and show them they can make a difference. It all starts with taking small steps, things like commuting to work, making sure you don’t waste energy & wear a jumper in the winter indoors, recycling, reusing and reducing waste and generally just stop & think about what you’re doing is really important. The power lies in getting people on board so one becomes many and the responsibility lies with us all. It’s a joint problem and requires a joint effort.

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Jason Mc Guire

Some people have hidden interests and put people before profits another reason is lack of education.

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Dr Clare Noone

People don’t react well to hearing information they don’t want to know.

Climate denial or climate inaction seems to be more about identity and ideology than it is about the scientific evidence. We see in the United States, how climate denial has become politicised. People don’t react well to hearing information they don’t want to know! Denial or apathy seems to be the easier, less painful option.

Social Science shows that if rejecting climate science is related to your core identity, then more scientific evidence won’t persuade you to change your mind. Sometimes these people feel like they are being attacked personally, so they dig in and double down on their viewpoint.

The best way to reach people is to give them more information on how Climate Change will affect them personally. Are they worried about the economy? Are they worried about their Health? Are they worried about the health of the planet for future generations? All of these will be negatively impacted by Climate Change and Climate inaction.

We were all born with enough human empathy to care about this climate emergency, but we need the courage to act.

…………and while some people may not want to hear it, we really do need to act now!

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Shane McDonagh

It is not a problem that moves on the same timescale as people. The effects of climate change are felt generation to generation, not day to day. Though they are accelerating and it will soon be hard to ignore, people are not used to planning for things where the impact on them is not obvious. We as scientists and engineers have also failed to get our message across clearly, while the other side have been very effective in spreading misinformation.

 

  1. How do emissions from planes compare to those from cars?

 Stephen Flood

Taking figures from the European Environment Agency the emissions per passenger per kilometre for a car ranges from 42 to 55 grams of CO2 compared to 285 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometre for a plane. It’s interesting to note that traveling by train uses only 14 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometre!

These figures are based on a number of assumptions and when you drill into the detail the results become more complex. For example, when looking at plane emissions the radiative forcing* emissions need to be accounted for too.

*This indicator measures the heating effect caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Planes emit emissions higher in the atmosphere than land transport and this increases the impact of their airborne emissions!

Furthermore, the car calculation above is based on occupancy by four people. However, with occupancy often much closer to 1-2 people the car pollution figure increases to 110 g for 2 passengers or 220 g for 1 passenger. This holds for planes too. The plane emissions figure makes the assumption that there are 88 people on standard Boeing plane. However, if the number increases to higher passenger occupancy of say 115 passengers the CO2 figure would drop accordingly.

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Shane McDonagh

It’s like comparing apples and oranges, not easy. Planes emit much more but they also carry many more people, and often to places cars can’t go. A plane full of people flying from Cork to Donegal beats each person driving, or even perhaps carpooling, but it wouldn’t beat electric vehicles charged by wind energy. So the issue is complex. In general, though, it is very hard to run a plane on renewable energy, but we’re almost there with cars.