BERLIN — Ireland became the second country on Thursday to declare a climate emergency, following Britain’s lead earlier this month. The measures come amid global youth protests demanding more climate action and as researchers fear that 1 million species may be on the brink of extinction because of human activity.
In a declaration passed unanimously Thursday without a vote by the Irish Parliament, lawmakers also stressed threats to biodiversity, which researchers say have ripple effects on humans who depend on the global food chain.
Both the Irish and British declarations are largely symbolic and do not force governments to take specific actions to increase biodiversity or pursue more emissions cuts than previously planned.
Opposition Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, who supported the move, warned that “declaring an emergency means absolutely nothing unless there is action to back it up. That means the Government having to do things they don’t want to do.”
Earlier this month, British Labour Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn took a more positive stance and celebrated Britain’s declaration, saying: “This can set off a wave of action from parliaments and governments around the globe.”
Corbyn also lashed out at President Trump, who has withdrawn the United States from the Paris climate agreement. “We pledge to work as closely as possible with countries that are serious about ending the climate catastrophe and make clear to U.S. President Donald Trump that he cannot ignore international agreements and action on the climate crisis,” Corbyn said.
French President Emmanuel Macron said last year that he would not negotiate trade deals with countries that did not comply with the agreement, which would include the United States.
But overall, the European Union has been split over whether to pursue tougher goals to limit the impact of climate change, with countries such as the Netherlands or Portugal arguing in favor.
But other nations — especially in Central or Eastern Europe where unemployment is higher and economic growth weaker — have soured on the idea of further joint measures. The fault lines have not only run between countries but also within. In France, protesters forced Macron to reverse taxes designed to decrease carbon emissions in recent months.
Meanwhile, Europe’s largest economy, Germany, has been preoccupied with shutting down its nuclear power plants since the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, which has resulted in a revival of coal energy there.
Researchers’ climate change models predict that the current speed of progress in Europe and elsewhere will not be sufficient to keep global warming below the 2 degree threshold. Keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) would avert some of the most serious repercussions.
While critics say that climate change action remains an afterthought for governments preoccupied with winning upcoming elections, growing protests are putting more pressure on parties to adapt.
Government agencies also insist that they have already made some progress. On Wednesday, Britain’s National Grid Electricity System Operator announced that the country had gone a full week without having to rely on any electricity generated by coal, for the first time since 1882.
Renewable energy sources have in recent years expanded the system’s self-reliance, and coal is now mostly considered a backup during times of high demand. Coal as a source of electricity is supposed to be phased out over the next seven to eight years, according to British government plans.
But climate activists say that current timelines are insufficient.
Amid what they perceive to be inaction, they have recently explored alternative paths to lobbying national governments. One way to put pressure on national lawmakers, they argue, is through actions on the level of cities and local councils.
Before Britain and Ireland declared climate emergencies, more than 500 councils worldwide had already done the same. Most of the councils are located in Britain, Canada, Australia and the United States.
While none of those councils have agreed to a common definition of what a “climate emergency” entails, their actions have in fact been more meaningful than the recent declarations by the Irish and British Parliaments. Hundreds of cities have taken specific steps to become carbon neutral by 2025, for instance by banning cars in city centers or promoting carbon-neutral houses.
In comparison, the British government has promised to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent over the next three decades, using 1990 emission levels as a baseline.
While this month’s declarations do not change existing government models, they could still be used as role models for future action.
After local constituencies took action by themselves in recent months, the governments of Wales and Scotland saw themselves forced to declare similar emergencies, putting pressure on the British Parliament to do the same. Copying that bottom-up strategy from local politics to the national level increasingly appears to be a promising avenue that could also prove effective for other, more substantial votes in the future.
One such vote is scheduled for next month, when Irish members of Parliament are expected to decide on a law that would limit gas and oil exploration. That would have a real economic impact and parliamentarians may face backlash for such concrete efforts to confront climate change.
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