Looking abroad to craft a credible Irish response to climate change

Looking abroad to craft a credible Irish response to climate change

Research throws light on how other countries managed the transition of their declining energy industries to meet climate change targets, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

It has been another busy couple of weeks in the crazy world of climate change: Inundations across much of northern England, Venice facing the worst floods since 1966, and raging fires threatening the northern suburbs of Sydney and Los Angeles.

Many people are not willing to allow themselves to be baked into the global warming pie without putting up a bit of a fight. Some 150 teenagers gathered at Leinster House in Dublin to debate many of the issues in the so-called Youth Assembly. They came from 26 counties to draw up a series of recommendations, including a ban on the import of fracked energy goods and a commitment to invest solely in renewables.

They also propose a tiered tax on emissions from large companies and legal moves to outlaw “acts of ecocide”.

The students propose alternative uses for farming land, a targeted nationwide information campaign, and lessons in sustainability beginning at primary school and continuing through the education system. These are sensible ideas.

I would add a few more to the list, including measures to promote recycling of clothes and discourage cheap fast-fashion goods and moves to curb spending on mobile phones and higher taxes on air transport. Such suggestions might not go down quite so well with the frequent travelling, heavy consuming generation of young people.

It is one thing to forego eating beef. Cutting down on the air miles may be even more important. The Cork Urban Soil project which promotes the use of biodigesters to divert waste from landfills was one idea to receive the valuable oxygen of publicity. But the looming job losses at ESB and Bord na Móna plants in the Midlands shows our leaders face into politically different decisions.

But above all they need to be consistent and such consistency in approach has been lacking at the ear of Government as is evidenced by recent backing for a proposed liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant on the Shannon estuary. The tide is beginning to move at international level when it comes to key institutions.

In an important symbolic move, the Swedish central bank announced it would sell off the bonds of the western Canada state of Alberta — in a move to signal its disapproval of regional government which promotes carbon-intensive energy activity. The central bank also recently sold off bonds issued by coal-producing Australian states.

The European Investment Bank, meanwhile, has just announced a decision to phase out funding of fossil fuel investments, including natural gas. The Nevin Economic Research Institute, or Neri, an offshoot of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, or Ictu, has published a working paper dealing with the challenges presented by the move to a low carbon future.

In the report, ‘Matching Skills Needs with Skills Reserves: Protecting Workers and Communities for a Just Transition’, authors Paul Goldrick-Kelly and Ciarán Nugent, accept the basic premise that we are facing into a huge period of transformation and that Ireland has been a laggard with carbon emissions per person standing well above the EU average and growing.

The State is facing a large and growing bill from Brussels if it does not mend its — and our — ways. The Neri authors note that it is in the most economically hard-pressed parts of the country that dependence on carbon-emitting activities ranging from farming to manufacturing to energy production are highest, no more so than in the Midlands where jobs in the energy sector — both direct and indirect — are on the line.

The report examines how other countries have managed similar transitions in declining industries singling out the coal-producing regions of the Ruhr Valley in Germany, the Appalachian mountain region near the US Midwest, south Wales, and parts of Sweden.

The Welsh experience presents something of a cautionary tale. The government there invested heavily in retraining yet failed to create the necessary demand for those skills.

In the Ruhr, the federal government and the local state, at an early stage, adopted a top down approach, failing to consult sufficiently at a local level. However, the authorities have since raised their game consulting more widely and investing heavily in local infrastructure and projects.

In Appalachia, health insurance, retraining, counselling and job search projects were provided yet the schemes were criticised as inadequate. The response of the Government here – with promises of funding for local projects – should be viewed in the light of such criticism. Neri points to the achievements of the Scottish Trade Union Congress in engaging with government on transition plans.

The result has been the establishment of a national investment bank along with a transition training fund. For the Orkney Isles — hit by the fall in oil and gas exploration — projects to promote local skills have been set up.

In Neri’s view, social partnership can play a key role in a similar transition process across Ireland, with local businesses, workers, unions and officials all joining forces to craft local and national economic regeneration strategies.

The forces of inertia and opposition to change remain formidable, not least as an election looms next year.

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