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Opinion The climate crisis will cost us money, but way more money if we wait any longer

Budget 2021 won’t bring long-term equality and fairness with the spectre of climate change, writes Dr Shana Cohen.

THE BUDGET DAY hoopla has come and gone, offering more cash here and there to seemingly please everyone.

However, in reality, the budget gave us little vision of the long-term future of the country. Especially absent was how the economy and society will have to transform to fight against climate change. Really, we should be thinking about the long-term future of the economy, society, and climate when deciding public expenditure.

A quick skim of global politics shows that there is a public appetite for bold, ambitious policies that address long- and short-term challenges, from climate change to energy prices to disrupted supply chains.

Ireland is no different. Beyond all of these challenges, the country is also facing the never-ending Brexit saga, a rise in the cherished corporate tax rate, and a host of longstanding issues coming to the fore because of the pandemic, like the staffing crisis in the HSE and long waiting lists.

Fulfilling our obligations to future generations

Instead of ambition, though, the budget focused on financial prudence.

In his budget statement, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath claimed to want Ireland to become a “better and a fairer place to live”.

At the same time, the Minister warned those “who believe we should spend more” that the state has to reduce the deficit because ‘we owe it to our children and to future generations to be careful in how we manage the public finances.’

I would counter that his argument does not make any sense. It is precisely for our children and future generations that the government should be investing in a new Ireland, not holding back on spending.

We need an Ireland where indigenous industry is flourishing, social inequality is diminishing, and climate action is progressing apace.

If the government wants a replacement for the low tax, business-friendly model now under pressure across the world, a good choice would be to invest in becoming a global example of climate justice.

A chance to lead

Ireland could use public spending to show other countries how to help domestic businesses and communities engage in climate action in a way that reduces carbon emissions while producing a fairer, healthier society.

A policy decision like this would deliberately contrast with that of much larger countries like China, which has elected to rely on coal-fueled power plants to meet current energy demand while rethinking its timescale for carbon emissions targets.

Earlier this year, the government did commit in the revised National Development Plan to spend €12.9 billion over the next decade on improving energy efficiency, transportation, and connectivity, as well as help farmers reduce emissions. Part of this investment is also going into higher education and training, with the promise of creating thousands of new jobs.

However, in the short-term, the increased carbon tax risks alienating portions of the public from climate action, especially middle- and lower-income families already strapped for cash, despite extra income promised by the budget.

To avoid backlash to this kind of blanket, top-down decision making, the government should connect climate action investment to community development, with the aim of giving local stakeholders more control over their own futures. This approach would in turn become Ireland’s framework for climate justice.

Climate Justice in Ireland

The approach would certainly need the government to spend more at national and local levels but also to regulate private investment to protect the public interest, with public input and clear public benefit.

The establishment of an offshore wind farm would probably be more welcome if its profits were shared by local residents and the investment created jobs for young people and generated better services. Conversely, data centres that eat up energy and water without creating jobs can disadvantage residents.

The government should also spend more to encourage changes in individual lifestyles that reduce both emissions and inequality. Climate justice would then become more integral to being a citizen or resident of this island.

For example, the government should incentivise customers through measures like tax and vouchers not to buy fast fashion or cheap supermarket meat. Both are damaging for the environment and are produced in environments often reliant on exploitative working conditions.

Instead, the government could help Irish consumers to buy higher quality, locally sourced food and clothing that will last.

I am not optimistic any of this will happen. The balance budget playbook will win the day for now. However, it will not create a fairer future.

Shana Cohen is the director of Tasc, the think tank for action on social change.

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This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.



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