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Opinion: 'Ireland only made its pollution targets in 2010 by crashing the economy'

Every day we delay the inevitable transition to sustainable energy – makes it more costly and disruptive, writes Oisin Coghlan.

Oisín Coghlan Director, Friends of the Earth

THE WHOLE ROOM laughed. The politicians and senior civil servants, as well as the business leaders and environmental NGO staff.

It was almost 10 years ago and I had just remarked that Ireland had only managed to meet our 2010 climate pollution targets, at the last minute – by crashing the economy.

I said we had better take decisions now on how to meet our 2020 targets because the one thing we could all agree on was that we didn’t want to have to crash the economy again in 2019. 

And yet here we are again.

We agreed to reduce our emissions by 20%, but according to the latest projections from the Environmental Protection Agency, at best, Irish emissions in 2020 will be 1% lower than they were in 2005.

We have a mountain to climb, especially as we’ve now agreed a 30% reduction target for 2030.

Can we finally step up and make the decisions to put Ireland on the path to cutting our pollution?

We have a Minister for Climate Action, in Richard Bruton TD, who talks like a man who takes the threat of climate change seriously and is determined to act. But we had that 10 years ago too and it didn’t translate into action.

What’s different this time?

For a start, our international reputation has taken a beating on the issue of climate change.

In 2017, the Climate Change Performance Index ranked Ireland as the worst country in the EU on climate action. That stung. In 2018, two more studies had us second worst after Poland, and the Taoiseach admitted to the European Parliament that Ireland was a “laggard” and that he wasn’t proud of our record.

With the government looking for votes from countries around the world to be elected to the UN Security Council next year, climate laggard is not a good look.

Since then the science has got even starker and scientists have grown more direct in their calls for action. The most recent scientific assessment for the UN declared that meeting the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement will “require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.

Sea levels are not the only thing rising. Young people get that their future is at stake and there is a wave of youth activism on climate change.

I saw it first in the successful campaigns for our universities to pull their investments out of fossil fuels. Since then, it has spilled out into the campaign for the state to pull its foreign investments out of fossil fuels, which saw the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill become law before Christmas.

Now we are seeing a campaign to ban offshore drilling and the importation of fracked gas from the US. And a growing number of school strikes by pupils inspired by Greta Thunberg in Norway.

The biggest thing that’s changed in the last 10 years is, unfortunately, the climate. We’re seeing what the future looks like with the increasing trend of extreme weather events, from storms to floods to droughts.

Public opinion is changing too. Politicians are telling us that for the first time, climate change is being mentioned on the doorsteps.

The Eurobarometer survey shows that 95% of Irish people want the government to set higher targets for wind and solar power.

Citizens Assembly

The most in-depth test of public opinion was the landmark Citizens’ Assembly process on climate change.

After considering 1,200 submissions, hearing from independent experts, weighing the evidence, and deliberating carefully, the citizens’ voted overwhelmingly for practical but far-reaching proposals for government-led action.

As on other issues, the exercise demonstrated that the public is ahead of the politicians on this.

The Citizens’ Assembly has given the Minister a clear mandate to act. Like the Citizens’ Assembly on the Eighth Amendment, a special all-party committee is now considering the recommendations.

All the signs are that the committee is taking its work seriously and is likely to echo and amplify the citizens’ call to action when it publishes its report in the coming weeks. 

Now it’s over to Minister Bruton. He’s promised a new ‘all-of-government’ climate action plan before Easter.

No Irish climate minister this century has had a better opportunity to bring forward policies and measures that would actually cut Irish emissions. For once, the balance of forces is tilted towards action.

A Green New Deal

To help him, we’ve looked at the Citizens’ Assembly proposals and packaged them as a 12-step programme to quit fossil fuels for good.

A Green New Deal, for a just transition to a zero carbon future. It’s challenging. It requires consistent leadership and investment.

Some of the ideas we are proposing include an SSIA-style scheme to help people save for insulation upgrades on their homes. We urgently need to stop burning peat for electricity. Changes like that shouldn’t leave people jobless though so we need a special task force to source new employment for people whose jobs are in non-sustainable power. 

The good news is that if government carried out these changes, they would mean warmer homes that are cheaper to run, community-owned renewable electricity, more public transport with lower fares and safer options for cycling and walking, improved mechanisms for political transparency and accountability, and an annual cheque in the post to help with the costs of transition.

We have delayed climate action long enough. Every day we delay increases the suffering climate change is already causing.
Every day we delay makes the transition more costly, more abrupt and more disruptive.

We can do it without crashing the economy. And the consequences of not doing it are no laughing matter. So let’s get on with it.

Oisin Coghlan is Director of Friends of the Earth. You can see more about their 12-step programme to quit fossil fuels at www.foe.ie.

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About the author:

Oisín Coghlan  / Director, Friends of the Earth

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