Ireland’s journey to net zero by 2050

Luke Reaper presents key insights in a guide to bringing the Irish public along the road in avoiding a climate catastrophe  

We have been warned. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988, scientists have tried with increasing urgency to warn humanity about the threat of climate change and the need for action. The IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report published last year presented the facts in stark relief: we have a narrow window to keep our planet’s warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Cop26 in Glasgow was billed as our best – and last – chance to avert climate catastrophe. The reality is that it was one step in the process. Where is the public in all this? Every country needs to make dramatic changes, impacting on how we live, work and move around. This study looks at how well public perceptions line up with expert views about the imperative of climate action, and how to address the gaps.


Most Irish people are not experts, which equates to how they evaluate climate change risks. They tend to foresee the major impacts as environmental, affecting weather patterns, coastlines and ecosystems. Fewer forsee societal impacts, like changes to water and food supply, human health, global security and inequality. They are less likely to believe climate change will impact their lifestyle, job, industry or community.

Irish people see climate change as a ‘big theme’ but fail to personally integrate or recognise the threat. Few Irish people have a direct personalised worry about it and the country is far behind the global average when it comes to internalising and acting on it. The downplaying of impacts could put Ireland at odds with the move to a decarbonised economy, especially with disruptions like Europe’s energy challenge.


Communicators have long known a key block to climate action is the idea that climate change is a problem that will affect people in the future. It remains a widespread misconception in Ireland, despite evidence that the crisis is affecting us now. Only 24 per cent of Irish people think climate change will cause a great deal of harm to them personally, while 76 per cent say it will cause major harm to future generations.

Climate science has shown that warmer-climate countries near the equator will feel the effects of climate change soonest and most consistently. It is evident in the greater sense of personal threat in countries like Greece, India, Indonesia and South Korea – and a smaller gap between perceptions of immediate versus future threat – compared to other nations.


While scientists have been discussing global warming for decades, Irish people’s awareness of climate change is fairly recent, with 43 per cent reporting that they have become aware of the issue since 2010. The Irish public attribute their awareness to severe weather events and media usage.

What does this say about what gets the public’s attention? It suggests people favour tangible evidence of harm they can see with their own eyes over the testimony of scientists, despite a level of trust there generally. Although extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and severity, a lack of experience for many Irish continues to feed into the misperception that the risk is down the road.

It also suggests the media has an outsized role to play – and arguably, a responsibility – in disseminating climate change information to the public. Notably, media outlets such as the national broadcaster RTÉ and The Irish Times have dialed up climate change in their journalism.


The Irish public want to believe it’s not too late to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The research showed that 17 per cent worry we are past the point of no return, but just over half of the Irish public disagree (54 per cent); the remainder (29 per cent) are unsure. The public view that there is still opportunity to prevent negative consequences is consistent with IPCC projections.

The IPCC has indicated that limiting global warming to below 1.5 degrees Celsius will meaningfully limit climate impacts on temperature and precipitation, ecosystems and biodiversity, and health, food, water and livelihoods. But this scenario requires deep and immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, without which the 1.5 degrees Celsius target will be beyond our reach.


Some 36 per cent of the Irish public think that based on progress, Ireland will be a net-zero emissions economy by 2050. Cop26 was notable for the shift in public discourse around climate change. Climate skepticism has largely been abandoned and the focus on a need to find and adopt solutions. Despite action from governments and businesses, the public remains skeptical that real change is coming.

About one in three (36 per cent) Irish people believe we are on track for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. As regards global progress, the Irish public are highly doubtful: just 13 per cent think net-zero is within the world’s reach by 2050. Experts believe the public is not wrong – we need to move faster to reach our targets. People earnestly want the world to achieve a net-zero emission economy by 2050.


The deep decarbonisation needed to achieve net zero and keep to an upper limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming will require contributions from all countries, industries and facets of society. One source of pessimism about achieving net zero is doubt about the initiatives to cut emissions.

Relatively few Irish people see the benefit of reducing emissions by moving away from fossil fuels, improving public transit, educating the public on energy conservation, engaging in more international cooperation or implementing taxes or regulations. On a positive note, the Irish public is more likely to believe transitioning away from fossil fuels is very effective compared to the global average.


The pathway to net zero by 2050 can only happen through significant upheaval. Here, Irish people prioritise improving knowledge about the impacts linked to human survival, including risks to food and water and to health. They value information about solutions. If knowledge is power, knowing that real actions are being taken helps build public confidence in the face of this unprecedented challenge.


Experts expect that the deep systems-level changes needed to avoid the consequences of climate change can, if done right, generate personal and societal benefits. Irish people largely share that positive outlook, with a belief that net zero emissions will benefit the natural environment, people’s health and wellbeing, and future generations. They are less positive about community liveability, jobs and home comfort.

Of all the aspects, the Irish public are most likely to predict negative consequences for the country’s economy (14%), but even these views are outweighed by optimism. It will be important to demonstrate progress towards this vision for the future to get citizens past the inevitable bumps on the road towards net zero.


The report argues for the need to get the public on board with the coming net zero transition, but who is best positioned to do that? Irish people trust climate information provided by scientists, followed by environmental bodies. Compared to other countries, Irish people are very trusting of the latter, unlike businesses and politicians. The results suggest the need for collaboration in tackling climate change issues.Finally, who pays?

This is the thorniest issue and one that needs careful, considered communication.

Luke Reaper is managing director of B&A

The report presents the results of the Irish research conducted by B&A and is based on an online survey of 1,000 Irish adults last September and October. B&A worked with its international partner IRIS in 12 other countries, with 13,000 interviews conducted globally.




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