Credibility in question as climate plan wilts on the vine

Credibility in question as climate plan wilts on the vine
Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton TD with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the launch for the Climate Action Plan in TUD Grangegorman Campus. MAXWELL PHOTOGRAPHY.

Be honest, we’ve all done it at least once. After a long and stressful time working through the dark days of winter, the summer arrives and you become fixated on spending a week turning an unflattering shade of red on some far-flung beach, before a last-minute booking to catch a flight to the sun.

When you return home, you find all your plants have died a grizzly, water-deprived death while you have been gone — victims of your amateurish green-fingered ways.

“For what died the sons of the geranium? Was it short-term thinking and incompetence, was it short-term thinking and incompetence...” you mutter under your breath in your best ‘For What Died The Sons Of Róisin’ Luke Kelly voice.

Well, sorry to break it to you, but yes, it was actually. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Environment Minister Richard Bruton will no doubt be counting the dying leaves of their own green policies lying on the floor after a week which has seen their lofty climate action plans left to wilt under some long-overdue political heat.

Over the past 72 hours, the Government’s already questioned climate action plan is in danger of going up in smoke, as funding issues around retro-fitting homes and official reports on electric cars quickly took the sheen off their painted-on green facade.

In the last three days, the Coalition has been forced to admit that well-meaning households now face the prospect of paying tens of thousands of euro worth of bills for eco-friendly home improvements because promised grants have withered on the vine.

The Department of Public Expenditure has separately taken its economist chainsaw to another key branch of the Government’s environmental policies by saying that plans to have 840,000 e-cars on Irish roads by 2030 risk the financial stability of the State.

And, to make matters worse, they have further warned the money available for e-car incentives over the next decade will run out by 2021 and that new — never mind unpopular — taxes for fuel-guzzling vehicles will almost certainly be needed to balance the books.

The issues might seem like individual problems that can be, if not fully resolved, then at least side-stepped with a bit of political ingenuity and distraction tactics (did anyone say ‘Brexit’?).

However, they pose a serious question that should not only be asked by people directly affected by the difficulties, but by the wider public as well: If the Government cannot even get the basic electric car, retro-fitting grant, and tax intake figures right, how can they be trusted to solve the climate change crisis itself?

It is not just a question to ponder while tucking into the spartan oatmeal breakfast or granola bar that has replaced your previous full Irish in a bid to do your bit for the planet.

Instead, it gets to the very heart of the problem surrounding how many politicians and more than a few members of the public are approaching climate change, with image too often dominating the agenda instead of fully thought-through, detailed planning.

And it is something environmental campaigners have been justifiably raising with politicians eyeing up new votes in recent months, now that eco-friendly policies are suddenly in vogue.

When Mr Varadkar launched the Coalition’s long-awaited climate action plan in June — not so coincidentally just weeks after the “green wave” local and European election results — Government ministers insisted they finally had a plan in place.

In an “ambitious but realistic” announcement, they said that, by 2030, a total of 840,000 electric cars will be on Irish roads, the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles will be banned, and that renewable energy will account for 70% of all Irish electricity sources.

In addition, policies were announced for 500,000 homes to be retro-fitted to become more eco-friendly, carbon emissions will be reduced, and the sale of single-use plastics would be outlawed.

It all sounds good in theory — as did the idea for Government ministers to highlight how seriously they are taking green issues by travelling in a special environmentally-friendly bus to the launch, despite the fact that only two ministers have environmentally friendly cars.

However, in practice, it is a little trickier, as environmentalists and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan pointed out when they welcomed the climate action 2030 targets in theory, but stressed they will be irrelevant unless the Government’s separate Project Ireland 2040 development plan is scrapped entirely.

As with most political rows, the stand-off grabbed the headlines for a few days before being quietly replaced by more eye-catching news. But as if to underline the fact that unlike your average political problem, climate action is not something you can long-finger anymore, the exact same problem of announcing a positive environmental policy to much fanfare and fireworks, without checking to see if it could be implemented, is now raising its head again.

On Wednesday, just weeks after Environment Minister Richard Bruton assured the Dáil on June 27 that €6m of the annual €7m fund for the Government’s house retro-fit grant was available, officials admitted that it, well... wasn’t.

A miscalculation in the level of interest — and, it has been claimed, a reluctance to explain this before last May’s local and European elections — meant that people who applied for the grant to pay for tens of thousands of euro worth of works on their properties would now be told by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland they will have to pay for it themselves.

Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley, Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane, and Labour’s Alan Kelly justifiably demanded the Government ensures those “left in the lurch” are compensated in full. But, despite the demand, the Government has yet to budge on any potential pay-out.

A day later, on Thursday evening — and just as Transport Minister Shane Ross was happily posing beside his own newly purchased electric car — a new Department of Public Expenditure report said that while the Government’s electric car targets are positive, they “pose a substantial risk to the stability of the State’s finances”.

If the Government reaches its 2030 electric-car targets, it will be great news for the environment, the report said, but bear in mind that it will also create a €1.5bn tax hole that may have to be filled by new taxes on fuel-guzzling cars.

And to make matters worse, the report also stated that the only currently tangible parts of the Government’s electric cars plans — a host of grants and incentives for switching to the eco-friendly vehicles — may have to be drastically cut back to stay within budget as, on current spending, the €200m grant money meant to last until 2030 will run out by 2021.

Another error, another miscalculation, and another damaging hit to the Government’s credibility when it comes down to actually implementing its climate-action promises.

As the past week has shown, planting — whether it is an actual flower or a spin-fed new political image — is one thing. But looking after that plant properly to ensure it grows and survives is quite another.

What Varadkar, Bruton, and Ross should learn from recent days is that simply liking a tweet from Greta Thunberg, plámásing pupils protesting about climate change, driving to launches

on eco-friendly buses, being snapped buying an electric car, or announcing a badly needed — and wanted — plan, without checking how it will work, is not sustainable for the creation of actual green policies.

Unless the Government starts genuinely thinking through some of the long-term realities of its climate action plans, it will be more than just the occasional house plant dying as a result of short-term thinking in the years to come.

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