The signing into law of the Climate Act is a momentous event in Irish environmental legislation.
The flagship legislation of the Green Party in government, the act, for the first time, makes it law for Ireland to meet our climate action obligations. It gives legal meaning to the climate emergency declared in 2019. Yet, it is only the beginning of bargaining and negotiation in the decade ahead.
Late-stage amendments, and the rush to plug these, are a reminder of that. In some ways, these make it easier to predict where the future bargaining will come from. But the enormity of the challenge is there for everyone, at a scale that is scarcely imaginable for us today.
The challenge set out last week by Lorna Bogue, however critical of the Green Party, is one worth parsing but it is still only the start of a conversation we need to have (Politicians are not taking climate crisis seriously despite the evidence).
Lorna is a close friend and, after her resignation from the Green Party, we continue to work together on Cork City Council, where we were both elected for the party in 2019. She knows how to time her punches too, publishing the article last Friday on the day of the signing into law of the act.
I’m 43 years old and all my life I’ve heard the prediction of climate change by two degrees in the 21st century. As one 1981 Thames TV programme put it succinctly, “If that doesn’t sound much, remember there was a time when the world was only five degrees centigrade colder, during the Ice Age, when the ice sheets reached Bristol.”
Forty years later, nothing has changed for my generation, except that global temperatures predicted then continue to rise. After years of neglecting our responsibilities, Ireland now has one of the steepest curves to meet in cutting greenhouse gases.
By 2030, Ireland must cut its greenhouse emissions by 51%. That’s everything from petrol and diesel in cars, natural gas for electricity, and oil and coal for heating homes.
For comparison, in 2020, with all the Covid-19 lockdowns, Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped by just 6%. We can scarcely imagine what 51% means and by 2050, we will need to be at net zero. In reality, even then, we will fall short of our true global responsibilities.
The same week that the Climate Act was signed into law, my eight-year-old son asked me innocently if it was this hot when I was a boy. It provoked a “talk” that my generation will need to begin with his generation.
We broke the planet. All of the smoke from cars and factories that goes up into the air, it’s stopping the heat from the sun going back out into space. The world is slowly getting hotter, and we’ve cut down the trees that take the smoke out of the air. It’s a big problem.
He was rightly appalled. How could grown-ups do this? How are we going to fix it?
Lorna is right, too, that green parties hold a special responsibility for this. Not because we’re to blame for the crisis, but because she and I were elected with very clear mandates to address it. We were elected amid a wave of demonstrations across Europe and the globe. It was the outrage of a generation younger than us both that lay beneath the green wave.
For the same reasons, she’s right to warn against the Green Party in government losing contact with that movement. The worst mistake a politician can make is to forget who elected them.
The Green Party must remain in continual and genuine dialogue with the movements behind us, just as other parties do with the bases that elect them. It is an easy mistake to internalise coalition or to reduce communication to the tin-eared boosterism that Lorna describes.
In addition, the party has to be more outward-looking than it historically has been. The crisis will affect people we traditionally have not engaged with as deeply as we should. We need to be able to understand and represent the fears of farmers, rural communities, and the poor better than other parties can.
If all this sounds unfair on the Green Party, well, life isn’t fair. Smaller parties in government have to get up earlier, stay up later, and work twice as hard, to get half the credit.
But just as Lorna timed her punches, she pulled them too by concentrating on the Green Party.
We face an existential crisis. The Climate Act makes it law that we will cut emissions by 51% before 2030, but outside of green parties and environmentalists, we all are largely oblivious, unprepared, disinterested, or unready for what that means.
If my son asked me if I believe we can fix it, truth is I cannot look him in the eye and say I have that much faith in humanity. The scale of change is so enormous, the timescales so short, and the problem so all-pervading, that we all have vested interests in the status quo. He’s eight, and he knows it.
Take just one small sliver of what’s in front of us in local government, where Lorna and I have our obligations.
Transport accounts for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions. Even with all the lockdowns of the pandemic, transport emissions dropped only 17% in 2020. Put bluntly, even if we stopped all road transport overnight — if no-one went to work, if no deliveries were made — we still wouldn’t hit 51% reduction.
Yet, if we are to stand a chance of getting anywhere close to that then, together with other measures, we need to get people out of their cars in unimaginable droves.
This is already a clash point in our cities, where road space is reallocated to public transport, walking and cycling, away from private car use. We all support more bus and cycle lanes, businesses and communities say, but not there, I need that for my car.
Our “common sense” of politics is based on reaching a fair compromise, but the climate won’t compromise. Yes, we must ensure the transition is a just one. We must listen to communities and work out how to make the transition work. But delaying and haggling over the depth of transition does long-term injustice to those same communities.
The late-stage amendments moved by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael senators sought to open an avenue for that. We must now ensure the regulations that underpin the act are strong, and remain so throughout future governments.
The passing of the Climate Act is a momentous achievement for the Green Party in government. It marks the difficult end of the beginning of Ireland’s bargaining with the inevitable over the next decade.
- Oliver Moran is a Green Party councillor in Cork city.