Courage needed to put country on path to sustainable future

Recent extreme weather shows the urgent need for the Government to show much more ambition in reducing our carbon emissions, writes Liam Quaide

After Storm Emma — that freakish onslaught of wind and snow in what should have been mild mid-spring — it has never been so apparent that our climate is in turmoil.

Scientists believe Emma resulted from temperature rises of 20-30C above historical averages in the Arctic since January.

Four and a half months on from Storm Ophelia, our working lives again were halted for several days by extreme weather. Water supplies dwindled in many areas, supermarket shelves went empty, and thousands of homes lost power.

In January, Storm Eleanor wreaked havoc. The combined cost of damage to property and loss of business resulting from these storms will be many tens of millions of euro.

Over the past year, we have seen unusually intense heat-waves and floods across the world, and an epic series of hurricanes and storms. We now require radical international action to prevent catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

In 2009, every EU country committed to the steady reduction of their carbon and methane emissions.

After being led by Fine Gael for seven years, Ireland is set to be fined up to €450m for missing its 2020 targets. It is sobering to consider how many homes we could have built for that kind of money.

We can contrast our Government’s lack of climate action ambition with that of Scotland, which by 2015 had reduced its emissions by more than double our 2020 target.

In November, Ireland was ranked the worst performing European Union country on a Climate Change Performance Index, and in 2015 our emissions actually increased when they were expected to fall sharply.

Leo Varadkar raised hope at the start of his term as Taoiseach when he identified climate change as a key concern. His Government’s national mitigation plan described the problem in detail but failed to propose timely measures to address it.

In addition to delaying the closure of peat and coal stations, it began granting oil exploration licences to private companies.

The Climate Emergency Measures Bill, introduced by People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith in November 2017, sought to prohibit the future granting of such state licences. In contrast to Mr Varadkar, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a ban on all new oil and gas exploration in December with immediate effect.

In January 2017, the Government also opposed Independent TD Thomas Pringle’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill, which would see Ireland diverting future state investment away from pollutants and into renewable energies. Despite the Government’s resistance, these bills were passed with cross party support.

In February, Project Ireland 2040 was launched, our national development plan (NDP) for the country’s long term capital spending. Greater emphasis was placed on climate action than in previous documents.

It looks impressive at first sight, mainly because of the contrast with no meaningful proposals prior to this.

However, the NDP is not radical or detailed enough to match the extent of climate action needed.

Crucially, it does not set out time-tabled emission reduction targets based on proposed actions.

Welcome plans were introduced for long overdue transport projects in Dublin — the extension of Dart and tram networks and the development of an underground Metro.

Outside Dublin, there is no such ambition for public transport, with only vague reference to the possibility of a tram system in Cork, and no mention of extending this to Galway, Limerick or Waterford, despite their growing traffic congestion.

The planned move to all electrical new vehicles from 2030 is progressive, but we should have followed Norway's lead in aiming for 2025. According to environmental agency An Taisce, targets for the retrofitting of 45,000 houses per annum from 2021 need to be more than doubled for the speed of transition we require to a low carbon economy.

The promise of climate action in some parts of the NDP is offset by climate action denial elsewhere.

It endorses continued intensive dairy and beef production which currently accounts for over 30% (and rising) of our total harmful emissions.

The use of land for sustainable practices such as afforestation, carbon storage and organic farming is not adequately incentivised.

In his essay on the battle against climate change, US scientist Bill McKibben warned that “winning slowly is the same as losing”.

The science is clear we do not have time for Leo Varadkar’s ambivalent attitude to climate action — his giving with one hand and taking away with the other. Radical green policies are now synonymous with economic pragmatism.

If Ireland joins with an increasing number of countries facing this issue squarely we can collectively safeguard our future from the worst effects of climate change. In so doing we would also enjoy immense economic and health benefits.

Ireland is ideally placed to develop wind energy, creating thousands of jobs. We have similar potential with solar energy. As an example of climate action’s chain benefits, An Taisce has outlined how peat workers could be re-trained and re-employed in the industry of home retrofitting.

Not only would these jobs be sustainable — unlike those in peat which are subsidised by €120m annually of taxpayers’ money — they would give us warmer homes and cleaner air as our reliance on fossil fuels diminishes. This transition needs to start in earnest now and be complete well in advance of the Government’s 2030 target.

Also, if we invest properly in trains and trams, we will greatly reduce pollution from cars and ease the traffic gridlock that is a significant quality of life burden for commuters to urban areas.

Our recent extreme weather events remind us that climate change is the most serious national and global issue of our time, and no longer a remote concern solely affecting future generations.

We require political courage and leadership like never before to reckon fully with this reality and to put our country on the road to a sustainable future.

Liam Quaide is a clinical psychologist and the Green Party representative for Midleton in East Cork

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