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Tuesday 27 March 2018

Barry O’Dwyer is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Marine and Renewable Energy (MaREI), University College Cork. Dr O’Dwyer is the lead research scientist on the EPA and DCCAE funded Climate Ireland Programme. This programme has the specific aim of supporting decision-makers in Ireland in planning for climate change adaptation.

Unveiled by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar TD and the Government, Project Ireland 2040 comprises the National Planning Framework that sets out the national spatial strategy, backed by the National Development Plan. Together these set forth the Government’s vision for Ireland over the next 20 years; this vision is underpinned by 10 National Strategic Outcomes (NSO) which include the transition to a low carbon and climate resilient society. To achieve this transition, two complementary sets of actions are required that address both the causes (mitigation) and the impacts of climate change on Ireland’s environment, society and economy (adaptation). Mitigation aims to reduce the causes of climate change by decreasing or preventing emissions of Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) and enhancing sinks (e.g. through afforestation) while adaptation aims to increase resilience to climate impacts by reducing the vulnerability of Ireland’s environment, society and economy to climate impacts while taking advantage of any opportunities that may arise.

Until recently, mitigation has formed the focus of national and international policy but now that the full extent of climate change impacts are becoming clear, adaptation is increasingly becoming a focus of policy. At the national level, this is evidenced by the publication of the National Adaptation Framework (NAF) in January 2018, which sets out the national strategy for the application of adaptation measures in different sectors and by local authorities.

Climate change is a reality for Ireland. On a national basis, temperatures are increasing, sea levels are rising, and patterns of precipitation are changing, an experience that is mirrored on a global basis. They manifest as changes in our average weather and in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. The direct impacts of these changes can be viewed through the lens of recent extreme weather events. For the period 2000-2012, almost €750m has been paid out in private flood insurance claims[i]. In terms of publically-owned infrastructure, it is estimated that damages caused to the State’s roads and railways as a result of the winter storms of 2015-2016 cost €160m[ii]. More recently, early estimates suggest that the costs associated with Storm Ophelia will be between €500m and €800m, while Storm Emma (or the “Beast from the East”) is estimated to have cost in excess of €160m, with the disruption from the storm likely to have cost hundreds of millions of euro.

When assessing the impacts of these events, it is important to recognise that the extent of the impacts are not only the result of extreme weather itself, but exacerbated by past planning and development policy and patterns, e.g. locating developments in areas considered to be at flood risk. Although extreme weather events form the current focus, it is also important to consider our experiences of the impacts of prolonged periods of climate variability. During the summer of 2012, for example, above average rainfall totals were recorded in the majority of areas and resulted in limited and poorly conserved silage. This event was compounded by the late spring of 2013 and led to a fodder crisis that is estimated to have cost up to €450m and led to the rationing and movement of forage across the country and the importation of silage and hay[iii].

Research indicates that the impacts of climate change will increase and intensify for the foreseeable future. Projections indicate that the number of intense storms over the north Atlantic are likely to increase and that the tracks of these storms will extend further south, over Ireland, with potentially devastating consequences. The frequency of extreme precipitation events are also expected to increase. While ongoing and projected changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events pose the most immediate risk for Ireland, there is also a pressing requirement to plan for resilience to long-term changes in climate conditions (i.e. average weather) and the impacts of these. For example, the costs for the agriculture sector of projected climate change has been estimated at between €1-2bn per year, primarily associated with the impacts of the increased incidence of pests and diseases, prolonged periods of drought, and flooding[iv]. For a sea level rise of 1m, it is estimated that 350km2 of Ireland’s land area is vulnerable to coastal inundation, with potential property insurance claims in the region of €1.1bn[v]. It is notable that this figure accounts for direct costs only and does not account for replacement costs.

Project Ireland 2040 has the potential to provide a vehicle to climate-proof Ireland’s society, environment and economy, and to ensure that future development decisions take full account of projected climate impacts. In contrast to the previous National Spatial Strategy, Development Plans and Capital Investment Programmes with time spans of 4-6 years, Project Ireland 2040 is different in that it aims to accommodate future growth over a longer period, which is essential when planning for longer-term climate resilience. The plan aims to concentrate Ireland’s future growth in existing settlements (in particular in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford). This will be achieved through the construction of 500,000 new homes and through urban regeneration and development. This concentration may exacerbate existing vulnerability to climate change. For example, projected increases in the frequency and intensity of drought will put increasing pressure on the water supply system, while sea level rise will put more areas at increased risk of coastal inundation and erosion. Sea level rise poses a particular threat due to the fact that all of Ireland’s major cities and critical infrastructure (e.g. power stations, railways) are located in coastal areas and many are already experiencing climate change impacts through changes in patterns of coastal flooding and erosion. Projected climate change may also reveal a wide range of vulnerabilities not currently considered of importance for Ireland. For example, Ireland’s population is aging and becoming increasingly vulnerable to heat-related health risks.

In response to the challenges posed by climate change, Project Ireland 2040 promises €22bn for climate measures, about one-fifth of the entire budget. The majority of this budget will be allocated for a series of measures to turn Ireland into a low-carbon economy by 2050 and are aimed primarily at mitigating the causes of climate change. This will be achieved through a reduction in GHG emissions from transport, the built environment, and a plan to stop burning coal. This is an ambitious plan. On our current emissions trajectory and with the current range of policy measures in place, it is unlikely that Ireland will meet its GHG emissions targets for 2020 and there is the potential for significant fines. In adapting Ireland to the impacts of climate change, the plan highlights a number of key areas where climate impacts will need to be considered and where future planning policy will have a critical role to play:

  1. Coastal areas (sea level rise and changes in patterns of erosion and sedimentation);
  2. The sustainable management of water and other environmental pressures;
  3. Addressing ongoing and potential future flood risk;
  4. Protecting important and vulnerable habitats as well as diminishing wild countryside; and
  5. Dealing with air quality problems in urban areas.

To implement the adaptive measures, Project Ireland 2040 recognises that the planning process provides a means of implementing and integrating climate change objectives at a local level. This is essential as the climate impacts are felt most acutely locally and it is at the local scale where emergency response is first enacted and where differences in social, economic and environmental conditions determine vulnerability. Importantly, the plan recognises that up to 2040, and beyond, a range of measures will be required to support implementation of adaptation responses in vulnerable areas.

Project Ireland 2040 should be applauded in setting the policy context for delivering climate resilience. Moreover, it is encouraging that Project Ireland 2040 recognises the wide range of challenges posed by climate change and has included climate considerations across all areas of planning. However, to achieve Project Ireland 2040’s vision of climate resilience and progress from the stage of policy development to implementation, it is essential that the full extent of climate impacts are recognised through the series of national development plans of which Project Ireland 2040 is comprised. In the short term, and to decrease the impacts of extreme weather events, we need to examine the vulnerability of existing development to ongoing and projected future impacts and, on this basis, prioritise areas for adaptation action. This prioritisation will likely mean abandoning those areas considered to be at significant risk while safeguarding others. For future development, it is essential that all planning fully considers the impacts of climate change including any new or emerging climate change risks (e.g. heat-related risks) at a strategic level. Many of the measures outlined in Project Ireland 2040 will serve to deliver climate resilience but with significant economic costs in terms of on-the-ground implementation.

As a framework document, Project Ireland 2040 should be commended for providing a national, forward-looking and ambitious vision for development. It is understandable that every detail of achieving this vision is not provided in Project Ireland 2040, but rather it provides for a policy framework with key aspects on implementation detailed through the series of National Development Plans, of which Project Ireland 2040 comprises. According to the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index[vi], Ireland ranks as the worst-performing country in Europe and 49th out of the 59 countries assessed. As such, these National Development Plans will have to be ambitious, innovative and significantly resourced. Currently, Ireland is at the early stages of the adaptation planning process.

In January 2018, the publication of the NAF provided the national policy context for delivering adaptation and the NAF will form a key component in the delivery of Project Ireland 2040. This forms an important step in delivering adaptation and provides a policy basis for the development of sectoral and local adaptation plans. However, in order to deliver adaptation effectively at sectoral and local levels, there is a pressing need to provide local, regional and sectoral decision-makers with the information and resources required to plan effectively for climate impacts. For example, there is a growing requirement to increase our understanding of how Ireland’s climate is currently changing and to understand how Ireland’s climate might change into the future. Currently, many of the networks dedicated to monitoring climate change are funded on an ad hoc basis and resources are urgently required to safeguard these essential services. In establishing Ireland’s vulnerability to climate change, there is an urgent need to increase our understanding of how, where, and when the impacts of climate change will be most severely felt. This will require a significant increase in funding of research. Moreover, following from this planning and preparatory phase, there will be considerable costs associated with delivering climate adaptation (e.g. hard engineering solutions, green-solutions), particularly as climate change intensifies. In delivering adaptation on the ground, local-level decision makers will need resources and funding and to increase public support for and understanding of climate change and adaptation.

Project Ireland 2040 and the associated NAF provide useful and ambitious policy frameworks in the context of delivering climate adaptation. However, the difficulties and challenges will emerge when planning for and implementing on-the-ground adaptation measures, some of which will require difficult and sometimes politically challenging decisions to be made. In order to overcome these challenges and avail of any opportunities, significant investment are now required to achieve the aims of Project Ireland 2040 and adapt Ireland to the ongoing and now inevitable future impacts of climate change. Ireland’s performance to date on climate change is unenviable and significant efforts and resources are required to translate policy ambitions into reality. The proof will be in the pudding.


[i] “Insurance Ireland Members Estimate Claims Cost for December/January Floods and Storms at €46 million”, Insurance Ireland. Available here.

[ii] DTTAS (2017) Developing Resilience to Climate Change in the Irish Transport Sector. Available here.

[iii] DAFM (2017) Adaptation Planning – Developing Resilience to Climate Change in the Irish Agriculture and Forestry Sector. Available here.

[iv] Flood, S. (2013). Projected economic impacts of climate change on Irish agriculture. Conference Paper discussed at “Projected Impacts of Climate Change on Irish Agriculture at the Institute of International and European Affairs.

[v] Flood, S., Sweeney, J. 2011. Quantifying Impacts of Potential Sea-Level Rise Scenarios on Irish Coastal Cities. In: Otto-Zimmermann, K. ed. Resilient Cities 2: Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change – Proceeding of the Global Forum 2011.

[vi] Bruck et al. (2018). Climate Change Performance Index: Results 2018. Available here.

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