Irish physicist John Tyndall was one of the first scientists to prove the earth's natural greenhouse effect. As far back as the 1860s he suggested that slight changes in the Earth’s atmosphere could bring about changes in climate. Little did he know that over the next hundred years or so the Earth’s natural carbon cycle that makes all life possible would be dramatically altered by mankind.
During the 20th century we uprooted millions of acres of forests and pumped billions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere as we became ever more dependent on fossil fuels like oil and coal as sources of energy.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has worked out that the Earth's average surface temperature has risen by 0.76° C since 1850 and, left unchecked, it’s likely to rise by a further 1.8-4.0°C this century.
In the worst case scenario some leading scientists predict it could soar by up to 6.4°C but an increase of even just 2°C may have irreversible and possibly catastrophic consequences for our planet. That means tackling global warming caused by climate change is now one of our biggest challenges. Scientific evidence that global warming is set to cause widespread devastation across our planet is overwhelming, but Europe is leading the way in trying to minimise its impact.
Climate change is taken very seriously by all EU Member States and many of the measures aimed at preventing it have been agreed at three important UN summits in which the European Union played a vital role.
The first of these took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from June 3-14 1992. Unofficially called ‘Earth Summit’, theUnited Nations Conference on Environment and Development produced a treaty aimed at setting limits on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreement that came out of the Brazilian summit laid the groundwork for a second more important treaty signed in Kyoto, Japan, on December, 11 1997.
The Kyoto Protocol was ratified by EU member states in 2002 and finally came into force on February 16 2005. It set legally binding targets for European Union member states and other industrialised countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
The targets amount to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012. In 2007 EU member states agreed to go a step further and committed to an average eight per cent reduction. Under a ‘burden-sharing’ agreement this target is shared between the 15 oldest member states and as Ireland’s industry and population energy needs had increased significantly during the ‘90s, we negotiated an actual increase of 13 per cent above the 1990 level.
Under Kyoto, Ireland's total allowable emissions in the period 2008-2012 works out at an annual average of 62.8 million tonnes. Every year the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calculates the actual emissions for the entire country. The most recent statistics show that Ireland’s total emissions in 2008 were 67.43 million tonnes – a 0.3 per cent reduction on the previous year.
Ireland, like other developed countries signed up to Kyoto, is allowed to offset some of its emissions target by purchasing carbon credits. These credits allow countries to invest in environmental projects in other nations which help reduce the overall amount of greenhouse gases released into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The EU Emissions Trading Scheme also allows member states to allocate national allowances across companies whose factories and plants are major emitters of carbon dioxide like power plants, building products manufacturers and other heavy industrial enterprises.
The Kyoto Protocol was followed up in December 2009 by the Copenhagen Accord which was signed following an 11 day summit in the Danish capital. Despite high hopes that new agreements between developed and developing nations could be reach at the summit, the deal reached fell well short of most expectations and is not yet legally binding. However, it does recognise the need to limit global temperatures rising no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels and promises to deliver $30 billon of aid for developing nations over the next three years.
It also outlines a goal of providing $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries cope with the impacts of climate change and it’s hoped the accord will eventually pave the way for a new international agreement on tackling climate change in the future.
The next climate change conference takes place in Mexico in November, 2010.