Brian Keegan: Ireland borrowed billions to fight Covid. How much are we willing to borrow to protect our people from climate change?

The analysis of the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions in this country in 2020 better describes the scale of the environmental challenge than offers hope of progress 
Brian Keegan: Ireland borrowed billions to fight Covid. How much are we willing to borrow to protect our people from climate change?

It seems that the crippling misery of last year’s lockdowns only achieved the same scale of reduction in carbon emissions that the Government is planning for us to achieve each year. File picture: John Giles/PA

Last week's report from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has been described as a silver lining to the dark cloud of Covid-19. However, their analysis of the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions in this country in 2020 better describes the scale of the environmental challenge than offers hope of progress. 

Ireland’s 2020 greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to be almost 6% lower overall due to the pandemic. There have been particular reductions from transport, estimated at over two million tonnes of Co2 equivalent than 2019, a decline of almost 17%. 

The Government has committed to an average 7% per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030. In 2020, it looks like we achieved a 6% reduction but this wasn’t part of a government strategy or plan. 

It seems that the crippling misery of last year’s lockdowns only achieved the same scale of reduction in carbon emissions that the Government is planning for us to achieve each year. The 2020 reduction happened, as it were, by accident.

The Irish outcome on emissions for 2020 isn’t even remarkable in world terms. According to a recent article from Carbon Brief, a climate science publication, the estimated global carbon reduction in 2020 thanks to the worldwide pandemic lockdown will only be 5.5% of 2019 totals. 

This particular estimate might not be entirely agenda-free, as Carbon Brief is supported by a group called the European Climate Foundation which aims to promote policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Separately, however, the International Energy Agency's latest numbers project that global emissions will have dropped by 8% by the end of the year. This agency, originally established to secure oil supplies for some OECD member nations including Ireland, also points out that the lockdown effect is six times larger than that caused by the great recession in 2009.

It seems that profound crises have a positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions, but the costs are unacceptable.

No one wants a repeat of the great recession, and the prospect of a repeat of a pandemic in the near future is too awful to contemplate. Instead, we have to work out how environmental sustainability can be made, well, sustainable.

The Programme for Government has plenty of ideas for what needs to be done. Investments in alternative technologies and modes of working will have to be made. It namechecks retrofitting of 500,000 homes by 2030, accelerating the electrification of the transport system, and developing a strategy for remote working and remote service delivery. This agenda doesn't come cheap and carbon taxes will only get us so far.

It may be necessary to have recourse to another government report published last week which deals with the national debt. Among its many findings is that while the national debt has spiralled due to the pandemic, the cost of borrowing has never been lower. 

Pre-pandemic, the national debt was the equivalent of €41,500 for every person in the country. With further debt accumulation expected this year, the per capita figure is set to reach around €47,700.

It’s a crude simplification, but we will have had to borrow €6,000 for every citizen to help protect them from Covid-19. That seems to me to be good value for money. How much should we be willing to borrow to protect our people from climate change?

  • Brian Keegan is director of public policy at Chartered Accountants Ireland

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