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Column: We ignored signs of the bank crisis. What about the climate crisis?

Ireland is headed in the wrong direction, writes Molly Walsh – and the Government is blindly ploughing ahead.

Molly Walsh

TWO WEEKS AGO, the ESRI published a report in which they warned that Ireland will miss its climate change targets. The report states that unless we implement a new policy or plan our emissions will breach our targets by 2020.

We have some experience in this country of what happens when we ignore the warnings of an approaching crisis. However one of the mistakes of our economic boom is in danger of being repeated in the area of climate change. And that is the mistake of allowing the desires of a strong lobby group to thwart attempts to plan and regulate sensibly.

The consequences of contributing to climate change will be felt both locally and globally. Climate change has been called the greatest challenge to humanity by people as politically varied as Leonardo DiCaprio, Maggie Thatcher, Al Gore and Phil Hogan. Globally the impacts of climate change are frightening: climate change is likely to greatly affect water resources and food security in some of the world’s most populous countries. Here in Ireland we are likely to see impacts on farmers in the South and East who will find it much drier, our rivers are at a greater risk of flooding, even the humble Irish potato may be at risk.

One of the biggest questions that we will have to face as a country is how to deal with people who have had to leave their homes because of climate impacts in their countries. Will we tell these people they are not welcome here when we caused the problem that forced them from their homes?

‘It is sometimes said that our problem in Ireland is cows and cars’

Why are we going to miss our targets? Well one of the main reasons mentioned in the report is that our agreed climate targets are on a collision course with a document call Food Harvest 2020, which is a growth strategy for our agricultural industry.

It is sometimes said that our problem in Ireland is cows and cars. However emissions from transport are finally starting to reduce while emissions from agriculture are set to increase. Methane from cows has a very warming effect in the atmosphere. Cows release lots of methane by belching and farting. Food Harvest 2020 plans to double our output of beef and dairy and more cows means more emissions.

But, I hear you ask, if its a government strategy it must have undergone some sort of check to ensure that it didn’t do more harm than good? In fact isn’t there a requirement for all government plans to undergo a Strategic Impact Assessment (SIA)? Well here’s the tricky thing about Food Harvest 2020. It is a strategy that was prepared by the farming industry itself and despite referring to it regularly the government have found it most convenient to insist that it isn’t government policy when it suits them.

In an answer to a PQ in the Dáil earlier this month Minister of State Shane McEntee said it was a document that was “wholeheartedly embraced” by the Agriculture Minister who was committed to its success but that it wasn’t a government plan or programme, it was an industry–led strategy!

‘This is exactly the kind of thing that allowed the financial industry to write their own rules’

This is exactly the kind of double think that allowed the financial industry to write their own rules and caused the financial crisis. We ignored the warnings on light touch regulation and failed to act then, we must not ignore these climate warnings now.
There is a way to make sure that we do meet our targets and play our fair part in tackling climate change. That way is to pass a strong climate law.

A climate law passed in the UK in Autumn 2008 and an even stronger one in Scotland in 2009. A climate law is a way to make sure that government thinking makes sense, it is an action plan to meet our targets, a plan to plan if you will. A climate law would do a few things but one of the most important would be a requirement on Ministers to set five-year legally binding targets.

Five years is about the time scale within which politicians can effectively think. Its long enough to allow flexibility, but short enough to mean something. The law would also have provision for an expert committee to publicly advise the government. Every year the minister would have to go in front of the Dáil and explain whether or not we are on target to meet our five year target or and respond to the advice of the expert committee. If we are off course they will have to explain what is going to be done to get back on track.

The best analogy I can think of is one of a student who is falling behind with their work. They wouldn’t be expelled or fail their state exams straight away. The end of year exams or annual targets would give a clear idea if the student was performing poorly, there would be mechanisms in place to stop them failing, teachers would advise, parents would work to get the pupil back on track etc.

The ESRI have warned that we are on a course to fail our Leaving Cert, the only exam that matters. What is worrying is that without a climate law we don’t have any plan to get us back on track.

Molly Walsh is the policy and advocacy officer with Friends of the Earth Ireland. For more information, visit their website at foe.ie or their Facebook page.

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Molly Walsh

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