GERARD HOWLIN: We need real action on climate change, not gesture politics

Fossil fuels will remain part of the mix. Best then that we have local supply if it can be found.

There is a lack of serious engagement with how we could swiftly transition to renewable sources, writes Gerard Howlin

SOMETIMES detail really matters. On February 8, the Dáil voted by 78-48 in favour of the Petroleum and Other Minerals Development (Amendment) (Climate Emergency Measures) Bill 2018. 

Its eight pages can be reduced to a single point. It bans future exploration for oil or gas.

Passing the bill at second stage means the principle of the legislation is now approved. Supporters include its sponsor Solidarity-People Before Profit, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, Labour, and more.

Proposed as “a climate emergency measure” by People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith, she explained it will “stop all future exploration for fossil fuels in the country and send a signal to the world that Ireland will no longer be a climate laggard”.

The truth is, we are laggards.

We are only now on our first ever climate change minister, and it shows in terms of policy. 

There is little evidence Denis Naughten, in that role now, has real engagement from his ministerial colleagues in Agriculture and Transport. 

They are responsible for cows and cars. These are the nub of the issue on climate change for us.

Smith’s “modest first step” towards a fossil-fuel-free Irish nirvana is less a coalition of the willing than a collection of those unwilling to take necessarily hard steps to move the dial on climate change. 

In place of a plan, it advocates a great gesture which has the panache of shooting ourselves in the foot. In banning exploration, it won’t change anything on carbon use. It will simply displace use away from domestic sources — if they can be found — to foreign ones. Embedding dependency on fossil fuels from Russia and the Middle East would be economically costly and politically reckless.

If there is a crisis, it is naïve to think that finds here would protect us from the brunt. But some domestic supply might keep essential services running.

The bill, which is alarmingly close to becoming law, is gesture politics at its worst. Smith herself could surely rely on her own contempt for most of her newly acquired followers to sense suffocating levels of political opportunism. 

There was a magnificent sense of the game involved when her colleague, TD Paul Murphy, explained that the environment is “an idea captured brilliantly by Karl Marx when he explained that nature is our second body. We cannot function without it, yet capitalism is destroying it.”

We need real action on climate change, not gesture politics

Alas Marxist countries, except perhaps isolationist Albania, did their bit for global warming, but that was then. 

Murphy set out a Marxist manifesto on climate: “Capitalism has outlived its usefulness for humanity. It has destroyed our environment and disrupted our climate. It has regulated 1bn people to the slow death of starvation and malnutrition. It offers no way forward. Instead, we need a rapid and just transition to an economy based on zero emissions. It means leaving fossil fuels in the ground.” 

He is right on climate change of course. But there is a lack of serious engagement with how we could swiftly transition to renewable sources, conscious there will always be some dependence on fossil fuels.

This bill isn’t about engagement. In the strategy of its proponents, it is one tool among others to ferment crisis, in the hope the change they want somehow mutates from it. That’s the climate change they want. And they make no secret of it.

Back on planet Earth, there is something called the energy trilemma. It’s about how we simultaneously manage conflicting claims for affordability, which is our livelihood now; sustainability, which is our hope for any ultimate future at all; and security, which is access to the energy we need now and in the future. 

Leaving it in the ground flies in the face of affordability and security. Critically, on sustainability, where we are way behind, it does nothing except force us to use foreign fossil fuels, at a higher price and less efficiently.

The extent of our climate obligations now is daunting.

We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels. That requires transformation — whatever about plans to change, too little is work in progress yet. 

The complexity of the move-on was acknowledged by Fianna Fáil spokesman Timmy Dooley, when he said “one does not go from 91% reliance on fossil fuels to no dependence on fossil fuels overnight”.

We need real action on climate change, not gesture politics

“This is not simply a supply-side problem. It would be hypocritical of me to pretend that by shutting down Irish production we will created a carbon-neutral country overnight. Whether it comes from the Corrib gas field or the tar sands in Alberta, western Canada, we will still need fossil fuels to put in our cars, to power our farms and factories and to heat our homes.” Indeed.

Incredibly he still led his party into a vote, to ban Irish exploration as a necessary part of that transition. Sinn Féin’s Brian Stanley at least acknowledged that “it is completely immoral to refuse to use our own gas but to continue to use fossil fuels belonging to somebody else because we do not have replacement renewables”. He voted for the bill, too, though.

On climate change, a litmus test would be to ask TDs, who voted in favour, where they are on delivery of the North-South Interconnector.

It’s an essential all-island project if Northern Ireland is going to have a sustainable energy supply. I assume we are serious about keeping the border open. It is also essential to develop a sustainable all-island market for renewable energy.

That is only a baby step politically in terms of an integrated policy approach, but it is a step which politicians are backing off from, because of local pressure. 

So much for big issues, needing big ideas. Then there is farming and transport. Most of those talking shrilly in the Dáil wouldn’t say boo to a moo. 

Transformative change on transport requires levels of investment in public transport, and housing density to support it, that has political implications about taxation. Best not to mention any of that stuff. Too complicated. Fact-free gesture politics work best.

They certainly work best for Solidarity-People Before Profit.

This is a coup for them. They must be laughing into their sleeves at the gormlessness of Labour, Sinn Féin, and Fianna Fáil giving them a platform. 

The bottom line is there are no pain-free strategies, only hard choices. We have to reduce fossil fuels, which requires a quantum increase in renewables. That’s only the energy generation piece. The really hard step is how we live, and how we use energy. Fossil fuels will remain part of the mix. 

Best then that we have local supply if it can be found. On finding gas or oil, drilling a well in the Atlantic costs north of $100m. That’s just one reckoning of the cost, of what unbelievably we are on the verge of banning.


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