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Time for Government to walk the walk not just talk the talk on emissions

Ireland’s track record on climate policy and meeting our national and international targets 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.  On the eve of a year in which nations are due to strengthen their Paris climate pledges, the latest UNEP Report on Emissions presents some very stark findings.

The main findings of the UNEP report are:

  • On current unconditional pledges, the world is heading for a 3.2°C temperature rise
  • Unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030, the world will miss the opportunity to get on track towards the 1.5°C temperature goal of the Paris Agreement.
  • Technologies and policy knowledge exist to cut emissions, but transformations must begin now
  • G20 nations account for 78 per cent of all emissions, but 15 G20 members have not committed to a timeline for net-zero emissions
  • countries simply cannot wait until the end of 2020, when new climate commitments are due, to step up action. They – and every city, region, business and individual – need to act now.
  • In the short-term, developed countries will have to reduce their emissions quicker than developing countries, for reasons of fairness and equity.

Ireland’s poor track record on implementing climate policy means that there is a vast suite of policies that Government can implement 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.  We failed to do this in Budget 2020, but as the UNEP report shows, Government cannot afford to delay any longer in implementing real policy change. 

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.  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. 

Transport

Investment in public transport is required, 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.

Agriculture

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.  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 a matter of priority if there is to be public support for the significant and fundamental changes required in the years ahead.  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.

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 has been lacking is strong implementation.

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.  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.  Is Government up to the task?