Monday 16 September 2019

Now is the time to lead, not plead Taoiseach

President Hollande meets Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the opening of the conference
President Hollande meets Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the opening of the conference
Paul Melia

Paul Melia

In a week when almost 150 heads of state gathered in Paris for the UN climate summit, Taoiseach Enda Kenny once again proved that all politics are local.

Addressing the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21), he said all countries "big and small" had to take action to address climate change, and that Ireland would play its part - as long as it didn't hamper growth in the agriculture sector.

"We don't want to see a situation where we are limited in what we can produce to find that food is being produced in other countries with inferior standards and higher emission levels," he said.

But what the Government really doesn't want to see is a situation where the country's 140,000 farming families vote for someone else come next year's General Election.

Not until after 2020 when our economy recovers will the State be in a position to meet "aggressive targets" to reduce agri emissions, Mr Kenny added. Next year, it will seek less-onerous targets for the sector, pleading we are a special case.

His comments may have played well among some, but they showed that the Taoiseach is no statesman, but a local politician pandering to his constituents.

As was noted on twitter, it seems all global eco-politics are local.

Reaction was tinged with a sense of disbelief that the Taoiseach was in effect telling the world's poorest that Ireland - a first-world developed nation - was too cash-strapped to help address a problem which would profoundly impact upon those least able to cope.

"We're probably going to be dragged (into this) kicking and screaming," Trocaire's executive director Eamonn Meehan said, criticising the lack of leadership.

Satirical website Waterford Whispers News didn't hold back in a sketch about the Fine Gael leader needing surgery to remove his head from a certain part of his anatomy.

The article helpfully noted that the condition of "Headious Up Arsesus" left the afflicted "unable to perform basic tasks like putting the health of the nation and its environment ahead of a few farmers who might not vote for him if he pushes for a reduction in agri-sector pollution."

It's abundantly clear as to why farmers were being addressed by Mr Kenny in his conference speech, and not the global community.

With Fine Gael hovering at around 30pc in the opinion polls, and Labour lagging between 7pc and 9pc, the coalition is facing into a difficult General Election and needs every vote it can muster.

The powerful farming lobby will play a huge role in the formation of the next government, hence the 'not at any cost' line, a sentiment which has also come from Labour's Environment Minister Alan Kelly.

But this stance flies in the face of showing leadership and vision, and once again demonstrates that despite our image, Ireland's green credentials are seriously lacking.

Across the EU, agriculture accounts for 12pc of all emissions. In Ireland, it's 33pc.Our household emissions are higher than average. Some 92pc of our energy is produced using fossil fuels, compared with 75pc across the EU, and we produce 20pc more waste per head of population than our neighbours.

The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill which passed through the Oireachtas this week is welcomed, as it creates a statutory obligation to meet targets, but it doesn't go far enough.

In particular, it gives government two years to produce plans on how to tackle the agriculture, transport, energy and buildings sector - work which should have started years ago.

Had we very clear and concise plans to get people out of their cars and onto public transport, and if we were heavily investing in energy-efficiency to reduce power consumption, there might be a case to be made for giving agriculture special status.

But we haven't, and we now run the risk of missing EU targets which will result in financial penalties.

There's no doubting the importance of the agriculture sector to the economy, accounting for more than 12pc of our exports and just under one-in-ten jobs.

With 139,600 farms, more than half (56.5pc) are specialist beef producers, and just over 11pc specialist dairy, according to the Central Statistics Office (CSO).

The problem is belching and farting cows produce methane which is among the most problematic of all greenhouse gases. Coalition plans to ramp up production will only exacerbate the problem, regardless of how sustainably food is produced.

Output is already increasing, and the number and size of farms is also on the rise. According to the Farm Structure Survey from Eurostat, the number of holdings fell in all EU member states between 2003 and 2013 except Ireland, and there are 1,235 more farms today than a decade ago.

Each is, on average, four hectares bigger.

As custodians of the land over generations, farmers do more than most to protect the environment.

But they are the very people who will be among the most affected unless climate change is tackled. It's not a question of 'if', but 'when'.

Winter rainfall is expected to increase, resulting in more flooding. There's also a risk of summer drought, and the real prospect of pests and diseases expanding their range, resulting in loss of crops.

As website noted, now is the time to lead, and not to plead. Climate change poses an enormous threat to our health, wealth and well-being.

The Government's stance is doing no-one any favours, and may end up harming our agriculture sector in the long-term.

Irish Independent

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