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7 things you should know about the 7% emissions reduction rate everyone is talking about

Posted by Oisín Coghlan on April 30, 2020 at 08:52 AM

7 things you should know about 7%.JPG

7%

Join this webinar this evening to find out more. The panel includes Prof John Sweenet, Dr Cara Augustenborg and Sadhbh O'Neill. Meantime, here's my 7 things to know about 7%.

1. It’s grounded in science and backed by the UN

Every year the United Nations Environment Programme publishes an “emissions gap” report, which analyses the gap between how much countries are planning to cut emissions and what is required to keep global heating to 1.5C, the goal of the Paris Agreement.

Last November the main headline from the UNEP Emissions Gap report was that we need to “cut global emissions by 7.6 percent every year for the next decade to meet 1.5°C Paris target”.

Speaking at the opening of the UN climate conference in Madrid last November, UN Secretary General Antonio Gutteres said:

We are all in this together.  The road map established by the scientific community is clear.

To limit global temperature rise to the necessary 1.5 degrees by the end of this century, we must reduce emissions by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, and we must achieve climate neutrality by 2050.

Ten years ago, if countries had acted on the science available, they would have needed to reduce emissions by 3.3 per cent each year. We didn’t.

 Today, we need to reduce emissions by 7.6 per cent each year to reach our goals.

Given that rich countries have polluted more than developing countries and have greater capacity to make carbon savings, countries like Ireland should, in all fairness be doing more that the average. Calculations by a number of Irish academics point to our fair share being more like 11% a year. That’s why the One Future Campaign For Faster and Fairer Climate Action chose “at least 8%” to give a nod to equity as well as science in our pre-election pledge.

One further observation on media shorthand around 7%, a climate emissions reduction rate of 7% is not “the Greens’ demand” any more than a covid transmission reproduction rate of less than 1 is a “Fine Gael demand”. They are both based on the best available science and the advice of the relevant international organizations.

2. It’s not 7 percentage points each year, it’s 7% of the reducing balance

It’s very easy to be confused by what a 7% reduction each year actually means for Ireland’s emissions. For example, it is not 7 percentage points each year (which would be 35% over 5 years), it is a 7% reduction compared to the previous year. So the actual drop required gets smaller each year as the outstanding balance reduces (it’s like the opposite of compound interest).

 Not 7 percentage points each year

3. It’s a measure of scale not a precise annual trajectory. Our targets will actually be managed in the form of 5-year carbon budgets.

No one is actually arguing for, or expecting, our emissions to fall by precisely 7% year after year. The figure is a measure of the scale of the immediate emissions cuts we have to make to put ourselves on the path to Paris.

In practice, we will manage our emissions reductions by adopting 5-year “carbon budgets”. A carbon budget is simply a number indicating the maximum amount of pollution we can afford to emit over a given period, in the same way that a financial budget is a number indicating the maximum amount of money you can afford to spend over a given period. (A Carbon Budget has nothing, repeat nothing, to do with carbon taxes.)

If, for the sake of simplicity, we say that our emissions in 2020 are 100 tonnes of polluting greenhouse gases, then our 2021-2025 Carbon Budget with an average reduction in emissions of 7% a year, looks like this:

 7% cuts as a 2021-2025 carbon budget A.JPG

So over the 5 years are emissions are 19% lower than they would have been if we hadn’t reduced emissions at all.

4. Saying it’s twice what is currently planned is only half the story

(spoiler: the 7% year-on-year reduction rate would save 20% more carbon between now and 2030 than the current plan.)

The outgoing Government’s 2019 Climate Action Plan would amount to Ireland reducing its emissions by 3.5% a year on average from now to 2030. That is made up of measures in the plan which are designed to achieve cuts of 2% a year in the combined emissions of transport, buildings and agriculture (called non-ETS emissions), as well bigger falls in the areas that are under the EU’s emissions trading scheme (ETS). The ETS covers power stations like Moneypoint and the midlands peats stations, cement factories and the very big factories that turn milk into milk powder.

On the face of 7% a year is twice as much as 3.5% a year. But that is only half the story. It makes sense to look out to 2030, the timeline for the target we have agreed with the EU. And it makes sense to look at the total emissions for the decade, because that’s what actually counts, rather than just the reduction rate in any given year. And it helps to put some actual greenhouse gas figures in the mix too.

The last year we have final figures for from the EPA is 2018, when we emitted 61 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (the same as it was in 2009 by the way). But the EPA has also published an estimate for 2019, of 62 million tonnes.

So let’s say we didn’t reduce emissions at all, then we would emit 62 million tonnes of pollution each year from 2021 to 2030. In that case our total emissions over the 10 years would amount to 620 million tonnes.

Now let’s see what happens if we reduce emissions by an average of 7% a year:

 7% cuts as 2021-2030 carbon budgets.JPG

Instead of 620 million tonnes of climate pollution, we would emit 395 million tonnes, a reduction of 36% over the decade.

How does that compare with the current plan of 3.5% year-on-year cuts:

 3.5% cuts as 2021-2030 carbon budgets.JPG

If our reduction rate is 3.5% a year then our total climate pollution over the 10 years is 495 million tonnes, compared to 395 million tonnes with a 7% reduction rate. So instead of just under 500 million tonnes we emit just under 400 million tonnes, a carbon savings of 20% compared to current plans. (You can peruse my spreadsheets on these pathways and carbon budgets at your leisure here)

In summary:

Reduction rate

Total emissions 2021-2030 in million tonnes of CO2e

 

No emissions reduction

620

 

3.5% year-on-year

495

20% lower than 620

7% year-on-year

395

36% lower than 620, 20% lower than 495

The 7% year-on-year reduction rate would save 20% more carbon between now and 2030 than the current plan.

5. 7% won’t be in the new climate law

One thing that all parties agree on is that we need to reform the 2015 climate law, the Climate Action Act. Measures to strengthen it were the centrepiece of the landmark report of the special Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action (known as the JOCCA).  The outgoing Government published a draft Bill in January.

After the exchange of documents between Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens, all three parties now support having new climate law passed in the first 100 days.

It’s worth stating that the annual reduction rate, whether it’s 8%, 7% or 3.5%, will not appear in the Bill. The Bill will make net-zero emissions our legally binding national target (for 2050, 2040 or some other date that remains to be fought over) but our short and medium term targets (5 years to 15 years) will be expressed in the carbon budgets. What the law will do is mandate the Government to propose a 5-year carbon budget to the Dáil, based on the advice of the Climate Council, and once the Dáil adopts it becomes legally-binding. Indeed they may propose 2 carbon budgets together (10 years) or even three like they do under the UK law.

6. All political parties have already endorsed the 7% reduction rate or higher

In its last report before the Dáil was dissolved the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee (the JOCCA) made a submission to Government that endorsed a 7% emission reduction rate for the coming decade. The represenatives of all parties on the Committee, including Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, agreed to that submission. In fact, it’s where the Green Party got the figure from.

Then during the election campaign 5 party leaders signed the One Future campaign pledge for “at least 8%” reductions (Sinn Fein, Labour, Greens, Social Democrats, Solidarity-People Before Profit).

7. We know where to start to make savings

For a long time climate campaigners have maintained that there are no shortage of policies and measures to make carbon savings and reduce pollution. What has been lacking. It is true, the more we have delayed action the bigger the savings we have t make each year. The Fianna Fail / Green Party Climate Response Bill in 2010 was based on a reduction rate of 3% a year, which would have got us on track then. Now, because we have wasted 10 years, the bare minimum we need to do is 7% or 8% a year. It is definitely challenging. I wouldn’t start from here as the old Irish directions go, but we are where we are.

So, start here:

  • The landmark report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee last year, agreed on a cross-party basis by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour the Greens and the Social Democrats. There are lots of policies and measures in here that the Government did not include in the 2019 Climate Action Plan.
  • The One Future Campaigns policy proposals. These are the distilled proposals of the civil society coalition that has been working on climate policy since 2007, the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, joined by a much wider range of civil society groupings than ever before.
  • There are also lots of proposals in the election manifestos of the various parties, which were analysed by Prof John Sweeney, Dr Cara Augustenborg and Sadhbh O’Neill for the One Future Campaign.
  • Any incoming Government should mandate the reformed Climate Council to prepare a menu of policy options that would deliver on a 7% reduction rate over the two carbon budgets from 2021-2025 and 2026-2030. Or better still, an 8% and an 11% rate.
  • And finally, the Government should encourage and support a national conversation, including structured social dialogue, about how we reduce pollution and make faster and fairer carbon savings in line with science and equity. There are signs of this already:

>> Seven climate change experts on how to cut emissions by 7%
>> Government formation: Can a 7% annual reduction in emissions be achieved
>> Greens’ 7% carbon cut requires ‘far-reaching, transformative changes’, experts say

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