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Budget 2020 must lay the foundations for a low carbon future

Ireland’s track record on meeting our national and international targets on climate policy is lamentable to say the least.  Our greenhouse gas emissions are nearly 3 million tonnes over the pathway required to meet our 2020 targets and we are also well off-course to achieve our 2030 emissions reduction targets.  We face immediate financial costs of up to €150 million per annum for missing our 2020 targets, but this figure will be dwarfed by the potential social, economic and environmental costs of climate change if we do not act now.

Our poor track record on implementing climate policy means that there is a vast suite of policies that Government can implement in Budget 2020 to lay the foundations of a transition by Ireland to a low carbon, sustainable future.  This will entail action on transport, renewable energy, retrofitting, the Circular Economy, biodiversity and a coherent transition to a low carbon economy.  Government must make the most of this opportunity and put the national interest ahead of short-term sectoral interests.  If we do not implement these policies now, regardless of how politically palatable they are, then future generations will pay an enormous cost.

Renewable Energy and Retrofitting
The CSO has just published a report which estimates that Ireland paid a total of €4.1 billion in potentially environmentally damaging subsidies in 2016.  In Budget 2020 Government should begin the process of diverting fossil fuel subsidies and environmentally harmful tax expenditures to investment in renewable energy, addressing energy poverty and a deep retrofitting programme for homes and community facilities.  

Investment in public transport is required in Budget 2020, both to ensure that our fleet is in line with our carbon commitments and to increase the range of public transport options available, particularly in rural areas.  The charging infrastructure for electric vehicles also requires expansion and Government should ensure that this charging infrastructure is powered by renewable energy.   The focus cannot solely be on road transport however; commercial air travel must also feature as part of a comprehensive carbon policy.  The fact that jet kerosene is not subject to mineral oil tax is in itself a damaging environmental subsidy.

In order to lead in climate smart agriculture Ireland needs to reduce absolute emissions from agriculture. This will require a step change in agricultural policy, and an end to the incoherence currently characterising public policy in several areas.  Promoting strategies that lead to an annual increase in agricultural emissions whilst simultaneously setting emissions reductions targets is problematic.  Support for sustainable agricultural practice is important to ensure the long-term viability of the sector.  We must invest in education for the current and future generation of farmers to move to more sustainable agricultural methods.  In Budget 2020 Government should implement policies to ensure goods reflect their environmental costs; this combined with short supply chains and local purchasing would ensure that produce from local farms would have a significant competitive advantage over imported food produce.

Circular Economy
Changing to a circular economy presents a challenge across all sectors, but would produce rewards from an economic, environmental and social standpoint. Ireland should move to develop a circular economy strategy concentrating on areas such as sustainable agriculture and the bio-economy. 

Mitigation and transition
The transition to a low carbon and more sustainable future offers us opportunities, but we must plan for this transition and ensure that those people and communities whose livelihoods will be most impacted by these changes are supported.  The development of a national mitigation and transition strategy as part of Budget 2020 is a matter of priority if there is to be public support for the significant and fundamental changes required in the years ahead.  As outlined earlier Ireland is nowhere near meeting our 2030 emissions reductions targets.  We need to make firm commitments to reduce total emissions outputs from agriculture, transport and energy.  These commitments must be underpinned by ambitious and substantive policies which must be implemented fully. 

They must be accompanied by a comprehensive mitigation and transition programme which is essential to pre-empt some of the challenges we face as we move to a more sustainable form of development.  Increased revenues from carbon tax should be ringfenced for investment in areas such as support and investment in the circular economy and bio-economy with regional strategies and targets; investment in renewable energy schemes and in community energy advisors and community energy programmes; re-training and support for those communities who will be most impacted by the loss of employment; and investment in a quality, accessible and well-connected public transport network at a minimum. 

A disposable society that uses up and discards people and resources with the single goal of ensuring the continuation of the process of capital accumulation is not sustainable, socially or environmentally.  It is time to revaluate what we mean by social and economic prosperity.  In Budget 2020 Government has the opportunity to lead the way towards a new generation of politics shaped by the economic, social and environmental demands of a truly healthy society.  This requires the implementation of brave social, environmental and economic policies.

Ireland has the capacity to develop ambitious policy, as the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill, the Citizen’s Assembly report on climate change and the Report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action can attest to.  What we need from Budget 2020 is strong implementation.

This article first appeared in the Irish Times on Thursday 13th June 2019.

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