On November 6th the Citizens Assembly held a series of votes under the topic of ‘How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’. This is the 3rd of 5 questions that the Citizens Assembly has been mandated to consider in the course of its existence. Over the course of 2 weekend the Assembly heard from 20 different experts on climate change and climate policy and have now issued a series of recommendations to the government to bring Irish climate policy up to the standard of our EU partners.
The big policy suggestions were focused around some of the more sensitive rural industries such as peat production and agriculture. Both have seen declining profit margins in recent years and tough markets, but are also two of the bigger contributors to climate change in Ireland that have regularly escaped scrutiny. As a result, the suggestion that all peat subsides to be ended in the next 5 years is a sharp course change for the industry and will no doubt elicit a sharp rebuttal.
Additionally, the call for a tax on the greenhouse gasses produced by the agricultural sector is a wakeup call for the Irish Farmers Association. They have long opposed any such tax on the basis that it is impractical and would undermine the viability of many farms across the state. However, the agricultural industry has been the biggest producer of greenhouse gasses for decades according to the EPA, and has thus far escaped the sanctions that other industries have endured. If this policy begins to gain traction the IFA could be set for a major legislative battle. The assembly also recommended that farmers should be rewarded for land measures that reduces carbon such has planting of trees or other carbon sinks, though this is unlikely to be of much comfort to farmers.
Transport has long been the 2nd largest contributor to greenhouse gases in Ireland (alongside energy production), and also largely seen as an area that significant change could be achieved really quickly. Among the suggestions was to increase the funding to transport infrastructure such as bus lanes, cycle lanes and park and ride facilities. These investments are to be given priority over investment in infrastructure for private car use. This recommendation is especially interesting as the CSO has reported than most of car journeys are for trips under 2km, so this transition could be cost effective for most people. They further said that spending on public transport should be prioritised ahead of new roads at a ratio of 2-1 to encourage uptake in public transport usage with particular care being given to rural areas to ensure the highest possible uptake.
Alongside this was the recommendation that the state should increase the national network of electric charging points to encourage a transition towards electric vehicles This would done alongside incentives to encourage consumers to purchase electrical vehicles such as reduced tolls and tax breaks. Additionally, they recommended a year on year increase in the tax on petrol and diesel to disincentives the purchase of what were called ‘carbon intensive vehicles’.
Where Ireland Stands
Currently Ireland is on course to miss its 2020 EU mandated emission reductions by a significant margin. As opposed to reducing our emissions by 20% as required we will only be reducing them by approximately 4-6%. In fact, since a sudden drop off in greenhouse gas emissions from 2008-2011 as a result of the onset of the recession, emissions have increased year and year since 2011. The only reason that they are below the 2008 levels is that the shock of the economic downturn was so great that it led to a sharp drop off in the first years.
Worse yet is the fact that as a result of missing these emissions targets by the margin we have, we as a nation may be subject to fines of up to €600 million per annum by the EU Commission. For comparison that is the same amount the government increased spending by in the October budget and twice the money it spent on tax cuts. When first questioned about this fact Minister for the Environment Denis Naughten contented that the targets first set by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition were unrealistic in the first place drawing much criticism.
The Government has failed to take serious action on climate change up until this point. The Fine Gael-Labour Government assumed that the drop off in emissions as a result of the recession was sufficient to keep Ireland on track for the 2020 targets and did not anticipate the strong recovery. This along with the fact that successive Irish Government has consistently failed to tackle the agricultural sector whom as the largest producers of greenhouse gasses in the state. This failure is about to cost us all.
The Citizen’s Assembly recommendations are ambitious but also necessary. The issue has been ignored too long and as such there is not time to ease the Irish economy into a transition to a green economy. We’ve already missed our 2020 targets and are on course to be subject to annual fines, but if we adopt the Assembly recommendations and begin to invest seriously in renewables and low carbon transport we can at least mitigate the damage, if not to the environment then to our pockets.
Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor