Thursday 17 October 2019

Leo needs to get business aboard climate action bus

This legislation must be treated with the same urgency as we’ve seen in the past when we have faced a crisis. Photo: INM
This legislation must be treated with the same urgency as we’ve seen in the past when we have faced a crisis. Photo: INM

Kevin Maughan

The Government's Climate Action Plan is ambitious, but it cannot be another paper exercise. We need real action and more of a focus on business. Optics often tell the true story. And the optics of last week's launch of the plan spoke volumes.

Cabinet ministers arrived to launch it amid much fanfare on a brand-new hybrid bus. Yet nearly all of them disembarked clutching reams and reams of paper. And very few of them left on the same bus.

It gave the impression that ministers were paying lip service to an idea of helping the environment when what we badly need is real leadership and substantive policies.

The Climate Action Plan is not without merit. Its goal is to ensure Ireland will meet its EU climate emission targets by 2030 and it makes a commitment to ensure the country is 100pc carbon-neutral by 2050. But it is at serious risk unless three things happen: there needs to be an added emphasis on business, it must be underpinned by new legislation, and someone must be held accountable.

The lack of business focus is striking. There is lots of detail on how consumers can make a difference, but business owners must be scratching their heads.

The government should be offering demonstrable ways in which all businesses can make a tangible and immediate difference in the next few months, such as through lighting and heating initiatives which pay for themselves, carbon-based tax incentives, and enhanced employee benefits. It is not as if Irish businesses are reluctant to make a difference - in 2018, more than 40 pledged to reduce their carbon emissions significantly by 2030 at a summit organised by Business in the Community Ireland.

This plan also talks a lot about new policies, EU targets and incentives. But legislation which would force the largest energy consumers to make real and substantive changes would have the biggest and most immediate impact.

This legislation must be treated with the same urgency as we've seen in the past when we have faced a crisis. Take, for example, the Criminal Assets Bureau. Not only was it set up within months but it is now seen as the model against which other countries compare agencies with similar scope. And there was similar swift action when the financial crisis hit just over a decade ago.

There would undoubtedly be an enormous clamour of lobbying groups for special interests working to prevent such legislation, but this is where we need real leadership.

Currently, 'climate action' is lumped into a department with communications, immediately diluting its importance.

A government department with sole responsibility for ensuring environmental standards are being met and reducing energy consumption would give laser-like focus for delivering results. And having a mandate to give evidence in front of a body similar to the Public Accounts Committee would quickly reveal if the emperor was wearing no clothes.

The chances of Ireland achieving such an ambitious goal by 2050 are unlikely. We already had clear targets to which we committed for 2020 that we will miss by a mile.

Now, we need simple and clearly defined annual targets for each segment of the economy that will ultimately deliver long-term success.

And let's not forget the spectre of huge EU fines hanging over us. We literally can't afford to kick this can down the road.

It is beyond doubt that climate change is the most significant issue facing all of us today. But the very words we use to describe this global threat to humanity are problematic.

We are not 'experiencing climate change'; we are all contributing to a 'climate crisis'. Last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar referenced "nudging people and business to make the right decision". We don't need a gentle nudge; we need a violent shove. The time for passive communication by consensus-building politicians is over. Now is the time for truth-telling, accountability and bold action across all of society.

Kevin Maughan is the CEO of UrbanVolt, an Irish-headquartered energy services company that provides global energy solutions to the world's largest companies

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