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Opinion We should have tackled climate change 20 years ago but the second best time is now

Environmentalist John Gibbons says the programme for government, for all its imperfections, is the best step forward in at least a decade.

THE BATTLE FOR the hearts and votes of ordinary members of the prospective coalition parties is underway in earnest. Without this endorsement, the historic political trinity of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party can’t happen.

The main focus to date has been on the Green Party, which has been openly divided throughout the negotiation process, and whose parliamentary party patched up an uneasy truce in endorsing the new Programme for Government with some abstentions.

Prominent climate activists have been speaking both for and against the programme, including Extinction Rebellion Ireland (XR) which described the deal as ‘a textbook example of spin, jam-packed with fluffy aspirations’.

However, XR member, Paul McCormack Cooney took a more nuanced view. “There is plenty in the programme to be hopeful about, but the language is vague where we need commitments the most. As far as XR goes, it simply isn’t good enough to deal with the climate emergency, and the threat of austerity remains a very real concern”, he told me.

Why the unease?

Much of the unease centres around the fact that the commitment to 7% ‘average annual emissions cuts’ in the programme appears to be back-loaded into the second half of the 2020s, leading to anxiety that this may simply be cover for more of the kind of foot-dragging that has dogged climate action in Ireland since 2011.

While widely presented as a ‘Green Party demand’, the target of cutting greenhouse gases by 7% a year was in fact signed up to by the Fine Gael-led government which endorsed the Paris Agreement on climate change in December 2015. 

The fact that no progress towards emissions cuts has been made in the five years since then is wholly down to the political failure to act in line with the science. And, like tackling a fire, the longer you delay taking action, the worse the inferno becomes. 

While public attention in Ireland has in recent months been understandably captured by the coronavirus lockdown, in the real world the climate system is showing ever more ominous signs of destabilisation.

For instance, while Irish agriculture has endured near-drought conditions since early Spring, last month was the hottest May globally since instrumental records began. And the first five months of 2020 are also the hottest ever recorded.

Meanwhile, in the first week of this month, temperatures in parts of Siberia well inside the Arctic Circle breached 30ºC. And, while there has been much media focus on air pollution falling as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, last month also saw global levels of the powerful heat-trapping gas, carbon dioxide (CO2) hit 417 parts per million, the highest level in at least the last three million years.

‘Insufferable heat’

Separately, a recent research paper made the shattering projection that, for every degree centigrade the Earth’s average temperature increases this century, around one billion people will endure ‘insufferable heat’, with crops unable to grow and animals also dying in these extreme conditions.

Based on our current level of emissions, scientists estimate that some three billion humans will be forced to abandon their homes and lands in the next 50 years as living conditions become impossible. 

Apart from this human disaster on an unimaginable scale, the geopolitical consequences are stark, especially when borne in mind how the European Union was thrown into deep crisis a few years ago as a result of the influx of refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war

Since tackling the climate emergency is the most urgent challenge, by this measure, the programme for government, for all its imperfections, is by far the best step forward in at least a decade.

The aim is to reduce Ireland’s total emissions by around 50% by 2030, a highly ambitious objective for a country which even Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had to admit was a “laggard” on climate action. Debate continues as to how exactly this goal will be achieved, but the mechanisms being put in place, including five-yearly carbon budgets and a tough new Climate Action Bill, suggest this is not just another false dawn.

Vital changes

Delivering change on this scale requires big actions, and the boldest of these is the plan to retrofit half a million Irish homes to minimum B2 standard by 2030. This is likely to cost around €25 billion over 10 years. This sounds massive until you consider that over the last decade, Ireland spent around €57 billion on climate-damaging imported fossil fuels.

A national retrofit plan will bring employment to every town and county in Ireland, providing a vital post-Covid financial pick-me-up. The bonus for householders is that big savings on fuel bills should make warmer, safer homes self-financing over time.

Equally bold is the plan to have the national grid at least 70% powered by renewables this decade. This includes adding 5GW of new offshore wind farms and interconnectors to France. It is no pipe dream to say that, with political will and vision, Ireland could have electrified our transport and heating systems and by the mid-2030s be a major net energy exporter. 

This should mean billions of euros flooding into our economy annually from clean energy exports capable of supplying 5% of Europe’s total electricity needs since Europe’s highest average wind speeds are located off our western coastline. What won’t feature off Ireland’s coasts are new oil or gas drilling projects, with licensing being stopped and a ban on fracked imported gas also being enacted. These are really huge environmental success stories.

The programme’s commitment to at least 20% of transport funding for cycling and walking is another decisive shift. This guarantees €360 a year for a Cinderella sector that has languished as billions were poured into motorway projects in recent decades. 

The largely car-free lockdown has underlined a latent public appetite for cycling, but it has to be safe, meaningfully protected and integrated cycleways, not helmets and hi-vis jackets.

On the downside, the programme has failed to tackle agricultural emissions, almost all of which are generated by beef and dairy production, accounting for a third of total national emissions, and these have actually risen by 8% since 2015. The sector plans to use its political clout to duck doing its fair share this decade as well. 

The irony here is that agriculture is highly vulnerable to climate-driven weather extremes, particularly droughts and flooding.

The best time to have gotten serious about climate action was 20 years ago. The second best time is right now. Let’s go.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator who specialises in covering the climate and biodiversity emergency. He is a contributor to The Irish Times, The Guardian and and is a regular guest environmental commentator on broadcast media. He blogs at and also runs the website and is on Twitter: @think_or_swim.

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