Just because something is permitted, doesn’t mean it is right, writes Elaine Loughlin
The practiced political jibe directed at the finance minister was flawlessly delivered to the waiting media by Fianna Fáil’s Jack Chambers earlier this week.
There were a few smirks and eye-rolls from the journalists, but Mr Chambers was highlighting a rising anger and concern around the Government’s mismanagement of the public finances and the mounting billions above budget that are being spent on the National Broadband Plan and the National Children’s Hospital.
Leo Varadkar’s Government now seems determined to spend and overspend its way out of any problem.
But our Government needs to realise that we cannot simply buy our way out of the climate crisis.
We cannot continue to use the purchase of carbon credits as a free pass for inaction.
The Government’s climate shopping spree was revealed at the Public Accounts Committee this week when members were told that the State has spent more than €86m in buying itself out of international environmental targets.
PAC chair Sean Fleming was scathing in his attack of the ‘throw money at it’ attitude adopted by our Government to climate change.
“We are saying that if we don’t meet our targets, we will buy unused emission credits from somebody else and pay the price,” Mr Fleming said.
He went on to describe the spending as “horrific”. He said Ireland’s approach to reducing carbon emissions is a “charade”, and suggested the Government are misleading the public through purchasing of carbon credits purely to “pretend we are coming in under target”.
“In simple English, if we don’t meet our targets we can buy our way out of the problem by buying unused emissions from somewhere else. It’s the biggest act of gross hypocrisy when it comes to the environment,” said Mr Fleming.
But hypocritical or not, the State intends to continue to dole out money to make up for our terrible record on tackling the climate crisis.
The committee heard that we are likely to have to spend another €67.5m to buy ourselves out of further renewable energy targets by the end of next year.
On top of that, we are set to spend up to €13m more to address EU2020 emissions targets deficits.
The Department of Environment’s secretary general Mark Griffin admitted that while the Government is committed to climate change reform, it is failing to meet its existing targets.
Ireland has been told that it must be at 16% renewable energy by 2020. However, the Government now expects to reach just 13% in that timeframe.
Indeed, the Fiscal Advisory Council said during the week the overall cost of not meeting our 2030 emissions targets could be as much as €5.5bn.
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan called for these funds to instead be invested in renewable energy, public transport, and other mitigating measures.
“It is far better that we spend that money now on the changes needed to move away from fossil fuels.
“So often we are hearing about the cost of dealing with climate change, but not dealing with it is clearly going to cost more,” said Mr Ryan.
Of course the Government’s spending on carbon credits is all allowed.
The Kyoto Protocol permits countries that have emission units to spare — emissions permitted to them but not “used” — to sell this excess capacity to countries that are over their targets.
This ‘polluter pays’ system allows gas-guzzling, carbon-producing countries like Ireland to buy carbon credits from good countries.
Just like oil or gold, carbon is now tracked and traded like any other commodity. It is known as the carbon market.
This trading system has been used by us and many other developed nations as a way of gaining absolution from our sins against the environment without actually addressing our discretions.
It’s not surprising then, that negotiators at the last UN climate summit in December could not reach consensus on whether and how to continue Kyoto-era offset schemes under the Paris Agreement.
States may now be beginning to realise that the carbon barter system cannot continue, but replacing it will require considerable effort and massive changes in policy on their part.
Talks on the future of carbon trading will resume in Bonn, Germany, this month but for now, carbon credits are legal currency.
But just because something is permitted doesn’t mean it is right and this week, the UN claimed in an article that carbon offsets are not our get-out-of-jail-free card.
Experts in the environment section of the UN said that buying carbon credits in exchange for a clean conscience while people carry on flying, buying diesel cars, and powering their homes with fossil fuels is no longer acceptable.
“We are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption,” UN secretary general António Guterres said.
In recent months, we have seen thousands of young people take to our streets calling for action to tackle climate change.
The wider public through the ballot box sent out a clear message that they want change when they brought about a ‘green wave’ — electing 49 local Green Party councillors and two Green MEPs last month.
While those in Leinster House are now talking green, their actions are anything but eco-friendly and the small efforts made to date come nowhere near where we now need to be.
Junior Minister John Halligan perhaps summed up the type of thinking in Government when he was asked about the potential environmental impact of Waterford Airport yesterday.
“If anybody thinks that we are not going to be travelling by air in the next 10, 15, 20 years, they are delusional,” he told RTÉ’s Today with Sean O’Rourke.
Climate Minister Richard Bruton is expected to publish a long-awaited cross-Government climate action plan next week.
Campaigners have said that the Government’s latest climate action plan must signal a new departure, putting Ireland on the path to zero climate pollution by 2050 and ending business-as-usual.
Oisín Coghlan, director of Friends of the Earth, said Mr Varadkar now has to stop speaking out of both sides of his mouth on climate action and pick a side, the fossil fuel industry or a safe future for our children.
“Otherwise, it doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles Richard Bruton’s climate plan has, no one will trust them to follow through fast enough or fairly enough.
“Unfortunately, the problem with previous plans launched in 2000 and 2007 is that they weren’t followed up with enough actual action.
“Ireland got its reputation as a climate laggard because of that ‘implementation gap’,” he said.
Instead of opening the purse strings again, our Government now needs to pull its socks up and get real on climate change.