Ireland was the subject of global headlines last week after a climate emergency was declared. Let’s hope we follow through this time, writes Caroline O’Doherty.
RARELY have the muted deliberations of a near-empty Dáil echoed so widely around the world.
When six TDs hung on in the chamber on Thursday evening last week to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency, momentous as the decision was, it passed without ceremony.
A few muffled expressions of tá, a short silence to check for any níls, confirmation that there were none, and it was all over. Amendment No 3, as the schedule denoted it, was passed and the House rose.
The wider world did not miss the significance, however. Ireland was now the second country in the world to have declared a climate emergency — the British parliament voted similarly a week earlier — and we were putting it up to other bigger, more powerful nations to do likewise.
The story was carried widely on international news services while social media expressed its excitement with countless exclamation marks.
But what next?
Having declared an emergency in any other context, the next obvious move would be to implement the emergency action plan and get to work immediately to tackle the cause of the crisis and counteract its effects without delay.
Ireland has no such plan. Despite many years of tinkering with the subject, we are still without an unambiguous, legally binding set of instructions for what we must and must not do in order to play our full part as a country and as individuals in tackling the climate crisis.
We are meant to have been getting to grips with greenhouse gas emissions since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol which required us to meet an initial target of reducing emissions by 5% on the base year of 1990. We had eight years to reach that target but we missed it, and the ones that followed.
We now have binding EU targets of reducing emissions by 20% on the base year of 2005 by 2020 and by 30% by 2030. That first target is just months away and we are on track to achieve only a 1% reduction.
That’s all about to change, apparently, because, before the end of the month, Minister for Communications, Climate Action, and the Environment Richard Bruton is to publish his “all-of-Government climate action plan”.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because when it comes to acting on climate change, producing reports is the one area where this Government and its predecessors have been very active.
The special all-party committee on climate action was set up last year to consider “the third report of the Citizens’ Assembly, in particular, how their recommendations might inform the further implementation of Ireland’s National Mitigation Plan and the development of the draft National Climate and Energy Plan (NECP) while taking the National Development Plan into consideration”. The committee then went on to produce its own report — the one that led to the emergency declaration. So that makes five reports in two years.
We are told that this one — the all-of-Government one promised in the next fortnight — will be different, that it will be definitive, detailed, comprehensive, and uncompromising. So what does it have to improve on?
The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act of 2015 required the Government to draw up a National Mitigation Plan which was meant to be transformative. Its vision was a low-carbon, as opposed to no-carbon, society by 2050, defined as at least an 80% reduction in emissions. So it didn’t overwhelm with ambition but it was in line with EU targets.
The tone of the plan was questionable, however. In setting out its stall, it pointed out that the EU Emissions Trading System, which allows large industries, power stations, and airlines to buy their way out of breaching emissions limits, “covers approximately 45% of total EU emissions, but only 28% of total emissions in Ireland”.
In other words, the EU as a whole had a bigger get-out clause than Ireland individually and the implication was that this was unfair.
The report went on to point out that the next emissions reduction target set for Ireland — 20% by 2020 — was “the most demanding” in the whole EU, equal only to Denmark and Luxembourg. The EU average was 10%, it stressed. Poor us, it almost sighed.
But if the tone of the report was not exactly inspirational, the lack of detail in it was downright discouraging. It contained many statements of commitment to emissions reduction but set no targets for individual sectors, proposed no new incentives or penalties, and deferred most action until copious further feasibility studies and reviews had been carried out.
On the thorny issue of an increase in carbon tax, it kicked the can so far down the road that it said an analysis of the options should take place “within the next five years”.
It did not even consider diverging from current agricultural policy to increase the dairy herd and said that just stabilising emissions in the sector “represents a significant ambition by the Government”.
When the draft plan was published in early 2017, the Climate Change Advisory Council pointed out these failings and suggested ways the final document could be strengthened and made useful. Published in July 2017, it was to be equally disappointing.
In October 2017, Friends of the Irish Environment began a High Court action, seeking judicial review of the document on the grounds that the Government was in breach of the 2015 Act by failing to produce a plan that was fit for purpose.
The case was heard in January this year and judgement is awaited.
Project Ireland 2040, the Government’s masterplan for the future development of the country, was unveiled amid much fanfare.
It came in two parts — the National Planning Framework and the National Development Plan — and, perhaps mindful of the cool reception the National Mitigation Plan had received, the latter was peppered with measures relating to climate change.
The 10-year plan said the use of coal and peat at the ESB’s Moneypoint power plant would end by 2025 at the latest and by 2030 elsewhere, and investment would prioritise wind, wave, solar, biomass, biofuels, biogas, and any other energy source that was not fossil fuels.
It said the sale of new petrol and diesel cars would be banned after 2030 with half-a-million electric vehicles to be on the road by that stage and no NCT certs to be issued for non-zero emission cars after 2045.
Investment in energy efficiency would see 45,000 homes per year upgraded from 2021 while 170,000 were to be supported to switch from oil-fired heating to heat pumps and solar panels.
The plan commits almost €22bn to drive “the transition to a low-carbon and climate resilient society” but it also commits around €100bn for infrastructure, including major road projects, without evaluating their likely contribution to carbon emissions. It also skirts around the delicate issue of agricultural policy.
One of the five issues the Citizens’ Assembly was asked to examine was “how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change” — an ambitious task given that even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had admitted we were “laggards”.
In April 2018, it produced its report which did not contain many new ideas but did show that, if the 100 citizens assembled really were a true representation of society at large, there was broad support for tough measures to tackle climate change.
There was 80% approval for increased carbon taxes — on condition that low-income households be exempt and that the revenue raised be ringfenced for increased support for schemes such as solar panel installation, retrofitting of households and businesses, and development of the charging network for electric vehicles.
Agreement was near unanimous that the State should prioritise the expansion of public transport over new road infrastructure at a spending ratio of no less than 2:1.
Significantly, the assembly put trust front and centre of its recommendations, saying there needed to be an independent body with legislative powers to compel all public bodies to fulfil their responsibilities on climate change, monitor their
progress, and take legal action against the State for any failures to live up to those obligations.
The NECP is required under EU law and the December version is a draft which is to be revised to take into account submissions from interested parties here and observations from Brussels and then resubmitted in final form by the end of this year.
It is a weighty tome, more than 300 pages long, and is technical in its content. It has attracted almost 80 submissions from energy companies, NGOs, scientific bodies, and community groups.
It is mainly concerned with evaluating the impact of existing and planned initiatives in reducing emissions and measuring those impacts against the targets set by the EU. It found the investments envisaged under the National Development Plan would reduce our emissions by just one third of what is required.
In that same period, the number of electric vehicles would only grow to 20% of the vehicles on the road.
Improved supports for retrofits would mean 40%-50% of homes would have high energy efficiency ratings, and 170,000 homes would switch away from oil-fired heating to heat pumps and solar panels but approximately 700,000 need to do the same.
Bruton got in fast with his remarks about the plan before anyone else could state the obvious. “This is not enough and ambition will need to be stepped up in all these areas and many others besides,” he said.
The Climate Action Network, the EU-wide coalition of climate NGOs, reinforced that view in April in its assessment of the various member states’ draft plans. “Ireland is way off track,” it said.
A joint Oireachtas committee was set up last summer specifically to consider the Citizens’ Assembly report and over six months of meetings and hearings, it put together a list of 42 priority recommendations but stressed they were only the beginning.
“This report should be seen as the beginning of an extensive and sustained series of climate actions that are required for Ireland to meet its commitments and play its part in the global response to climate change,” it stated.
But if a good start is half the finish, a pessimist could say this latest strategy is finished before it has started.
One of the first recommendations was that the State would urge the EU to become more ambitious in its targets, imposing a mandatory no emissions, as opposed to low emissions, policy by 2050.
Last week eight EU countries came together at the Future of Europe summit to make exactly that demand but Ireland was not one of them.
That less than promising start aside, the report has been well-received and because it is a “cross-party consensus for action”, the recommendations are, in principle at least, already agreed by the main parties.
They include increasing our 2050 emissions reduction target from 80% to the level of net zero emissions — regardless of what the EU says — requiring 70% of all our electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030, and setting five-yearly carbon budgets for each government department.
The committee fully embraced the Citizens’ Assembly call for new governance arrangements with all targets to be enshrined in legislation, all requirements on public bodies to be made legally binding, a powerful new oversight body to ensure they toe the line, and a new permanent Oireachtas committee similar to the public accounts committee to keep them under scrutiny.
On agriculture, the report goes down the route of some predecessors, requesting further studies to be carried out, but it does seek a “critical review of current national land-use and agricultural schemes”, saying work needs to begin immediately and the results delivered by the end of the year.
It also wants a multi-stakeholder forum on agricultural diversification. The language could have been more direct but the intent could not be clearer — it is saying we need to rethink our precious national policy of increasing dairy herds.
On carbon tax, it calls for a quadrupling of the current price of €20 per tonne to €80 per tonne by 2030 [as also sought by the Climate Change Advisory Council] but it stresses that low-income households must be protected and it says the revenue from the tax [currently €440m per year] must be “used in a transparent manner” and ringfenced by legislation for use in climate mitigation measures, incentives, and/or some form of public “fee and dividend” scheme.
The Department of Finance is also asked to commission an inquiry into the revenues that could be raised through a special carbon tax on the profits of corporations and firms directly linked to the production and sale of gas, oil, coal, and other fossil fuels.
The next plan won’t be the last this year — the final National Energy and Action Plan must go to Brussels by December — but it is the plan that the Government is talking up as the one that will take no prisoners, make no excuses and dodge no decisions.
On Thursday night last week, Richard Bruton told the near-empty Dail that the way ahead would be challenging.
“We are asking people to make profound and difficult changes to the way we live. That is not easy and it can’t be solved in Kildare St. It’s going to be solved in every home, village, community, business, and farm in the country.”
The plan, however, must come from Kildare St, and the people have been waiting for it for 30 years.