Sustainability in the next Programme For Government

Posted on Friday, 14 February 2020

Though we know the make-up fo the 33rd Dáil, it is not yet clear what form the next Government will take. Whatever combination of parties - possibly with the support of some independents - sits down to negotiate the next Programme for Government, they should focus on five key outcomes:

  1. A Vibrant Economy
  2. Decent Services and Infrastructure
  3. Just Taxation
  4. Good Governance, and
  5. Sustainability

Indeed, regardless of what is achieved under the next Government, if their policies are not implemented in a sustainable fashion, the benefits will be limited. But sustainability has many facets.

Climate and Environmental Sustainability

Despite the many crises Ireland faces, including in housing and health, climate change remains the greatest long-term challenge facing Ireland today. It is all the greater for the fact that Ireland alone cannot control this, and any solutions implemented by Ireland will be of minimal use if not adopted as part of a global effort to curb emissions and move to a carbon-neutral economy in the coming decades.

However, that is no excuse for the Government of the 33rd Dáil shirking its obligations, as previous ones have done. Social Justice Ireland has in the past called for Government to adopt ambitious statutory targets aimed at limiting fossil fuel emissions and introduce taxation measures necessary to compensate for the full costs of resource extraction and pollution. These should be accompanied by mitigation measures to protect the vulnerable and those whose livelihoods will be severely impacted. The recent increase of €6 per tonne in the Carbon Tax in Budget 2020 was welcome, but carbon taxes alone will not get Ireland to where it needs to be.

One thing is for sure; the challenge of reducing Ireland’s fossil fuel emissions should not be postponed in deference to the goal of economic growth. The economy is, in the first instance, a subsystem of human society, which is itself a subsystem of the totality of life on Earth. No subsystem can expand beyond the capacity of the total system of which it is a part (Porritt, 2006: 46). Sustainability can no longer play a subservient role to economics. Economists will probably always lag well behind the accelerating warnings of climate scientists (Gough, 2017). Indeed, a survey in 2011 concluded that neoclassical economics advocated a ‘modest’ optimal rate of emissions reduction, well below that recommended by climate scientists (Dietz, 2011).

Sustainable development is development which meets the needs of the present while not compromising the needs of the future. Financial and economic, environmental, and social sustainability are all key objectives and are all interlinked. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz noted last year, ‘GDP is not a good measure of wellbeing. What we measure affects what we do, and if we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing’ (Stiglitz, 2019). Creating a sustainable Ireland requires the adoption of new indicators to measure progress. National Income figures are limited to measuring the monetary value of gross output, income and expenditure in an economy, and include many activities that are in fact detrimental to society and incompatible with the common good while omitting activities that are essential for society to survive and thrive.

Social Justice Ireland believes that using a country’s performance on the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2015b) as a benchmark would be a more appropriate measurement of progress and wellbeing. A report last year from Professor Charles Clark of St John’s University, New York, and Dr Catherine Kavanagh of University College Cork seeks to move beyond national income as a measure of societal advancement, encompassing environmental and social indicators of progress as well as economic ones. As noted by Tom Healy in his recent book, An Ireland Worth Working For, we need to ‘change the language and thinking around ‘economic growth’. What matters is sustainable human development across a range of domains encompassing nutrition, health, education and work’. Growth as captured by GDP must become a secondary policy goal, subservient to others.

The report from Clark and Kavanagh, titled Sustainable Progress Index 2019, showed that Ireland’s environmental performance was below average, ranking us 13th in the EU-15, ahead of only Greece and Luxembourg. This points to policies that have prioritised economic growth above sustainability and this is an approach that cannot be allowed to continue. Commitments made at the COP21 conference in Paris in 2015 were based on the growing realisation that the resources of the planet and its environment are finite – a fact that had often been ignored in the past. Failure to tackle climate change immediately will have significant impacts into the future, including on food production, regional and global ecosystems, and on flood-prone regions. However, commitments so far have amounted to only a quarter of what is required to meet the targets agreed in Paris. Social Justice Ireland suggests that the next Government begin using an Index such as the Sustainable Progress Index to measure Ireland’s true progress.

Financial Sustainability

Sustainability is about more than the environment; it can also relate to finances, economics, and social wellbeing. A significant portion of Ireland’s national debt originated from bailouts of the Irish financial sector; liabilities guaranteed by the Irish State on the basis of inaccurate, possibly fraudulent, information. Part of Ireland’s debt represents a direct subsidy from the Irish public to international bondholders and the European banking system, the total cost of which is estimated at €64bn. There has yet to be sufficient recognition of this by our European partners. This debt burden seems sustainable for now, but a sharp fall in corporation tax receipts or an external economic shock could change that very quickly.

Policymakers as part of the next Government must also consider the sustainability of Ireland's current tax regime. In order to fund the move to a carbon-neutral economy in the coming decade, as well as solve the multiple infrastructural crises facing Ireland in hosuing, healthcare, childcare and public transport, Ireland can no longer to continue to collect less revenue than our European peers. Social Justice Ireland believes that the next government should aim to raise between €2.5 billion and €3 billion per annum in additional revenue. Irleand is currently 10th in the EU15 in terms of government revenue raised per capita, and such an increase in revenue raised will leave us still in 10th place. 

Regional Sustainability

A sustainable social and economic model requires balanced regional development. The forthcoming Programme for Government must move to correct the growing disparity in the standard of living and the distribution of population between rural and urban Ireland. The proportion of the population living in and around the capital city is already very high by international standards. This is projected to keep growing and Dublin already accounts for half of economic output in Ireland. Yet we are continuing to model our growth path, and design our public services, in a way that encourages rather than discourages such concentration. By continuing to locate a disproportionate amount of our best health, education, and cultural institutions in Dublin, we are driving a model of development that precludes the kind of regional balance required for Ireland to thrive.

Policy must ensure balanced regional development through the provision of public services and through capital spending projects. Ireland 2040 and the National Development Plan must not go the same way as the National Spatial Strategy and must keep their commitments to not leaving rural Ireland behind as this would result in a further unsustainable concentration of the population around our major cities, particularly Dublin. Full roll-out of the National Broadband Plan is essential.

In particular, Government must figure out a way to transition to a sustainable economic model in a just manner. The concept of a Just Transition and what it entails should be an issue for consideration by a public forum involving all stakeholders. Account must be taken of the fact that, done badly, the transition to a carbon-neutral economy has the potential to do serious harm to some of Ireland’s most vulnerable, including those on low incomes, those in energy-inefficient dwellings, and those living in areas heavily reliant on carbon-intensive employment.

It is worth noting the work of the Nevin Economic Research Institute which highlights the fact that around 6 per cent of employment in Ireland accounts for 75 per cent of total non-household emissions, and 8 per cent accounts for 80 per cent of emissions, if Transportation & Storage is included. These are the jobs in most danger. Emissions-intensive sectors are concentrated outside of the Dublin area for the most part, with the exception of Transportation & Storage. The share of employment in Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing in the Border and Midlands regions is approximately twice as high as the national average. In the West, South West and Midlands, an individual is between 29 and 43 per cent more likely to work in Industry than the national average. Employment in Dublin and the Mid-East is disproportionately concentrated in Services, where carbon emissions are much lower. There is also a substantial disparity between Irish regions in the proportion of new jobs in ‘low-emitting’ sectors.

The transition to a carbon-neutral economy will require a certain amount economic re-structuring, and there will inevitably be job losses. Much of the economic inequality experienced in Ireland and in other countries has been caused by economic changes that were either inevitable or the downside of desirable developments; technological progress cannot be arrested, nor can the improving competitiveness of emerging economies of the Global South. International trade deals have negative impacts as well as positive ones. But it is clear that there has been a failure to ensure the respective gains and losses from these trends and deals are shared more widely and more fairly. This cannot be allowed to happen with the move to carbon-neutrality; a just transition is imperative.

At an international level

Finally, the responsibilities and obligations of the Global North towards the planet and the peoples of East and South must be taken into account. There is a double obligation on the rich world to decarbonise rapidly in its production and consumptions practices and to help to fund mitigation and adaptation programmes in the Global South (Gough, 2017: 12). The most developed countries of the world have burned copious amounts of fossil fuels to get them to where they are, and those same countries continue to have the most carbon-intensive lifestyles. There is not an unreasonable expectation in the developing world that they should not have to remain at the current level of development, well behind the living standards of the world’s richest countries.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the available ‘global carbon budget’ – a budget that would offer a 66 per cent chance of remaining within the 1.5 degrees warming target – is 420 billion tonnes of CO2. Dividing that equally between all 7.7 billion humans on Earth today and dividing by the years left this century gives a global personal allowance of a little less than 0.7 tonnes per person per year. (And the world’s population is expanding.) Present consumption in Ireland is 13 tonnes per person per year; almost 20 times our ‘moral budget’.

Gough (2017) characterises this situation as needing what he refers to as ‘speedy contraction and convergence’. The goal must be to respect biophysical boundaries while at the same time pursuing sustainable wellbeing: that is, wellbeing for all current peoples, as well as future generations. ‘Between an upper boundary set by biophysical limits and a lower boundary set by decent levels of wellbeing for all today lies a safe and just space for humanity’.

Essentially, it is about deciding what would constitute a moral minimum of need satisfaction across today’s world. Gough concludes that ‘equity, redistribution and prioritising human needs, far from being diversions from the basic task of decarbonising the economy, are critical climate policies’.


Dietz, S. (2011). From efficiency to justice: Utility as the informational basis of climate strategies. In J.S. Dryzek, R.B. Norgaard and D. Schlosberg eds. Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, pp.295-308. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Gough, I. (2017) Heat, Greed and Human Need: Climate Change, Capitalism and Sustainable Wellbeing. Cheltenham: Elgar

Porrit, J. (2006) Capitalism as if the World Matters. Routledge, London

Stiglitz, J. (2019) Beyond GDP. Available at: