Wednesday 21 August 2019

Oisín Coghlan: 'Leaders finally reach starting line in race to save our futures'

In the air: Laoise O Morain, from Sandymount, holds a Stop Climate Change sign as her sisters Aisling and Róisín play beside Poolbeg Towers in Dublin. Photo: Leon Farrell
In the air: Laoise O Morain, from Sandymount, holds a Stop Climate Change sign as her sisters Aisling and Róisín play beside Poolbeg Towers in Dublin. Photo: Leon Farrell

Oisín Coghlan

The UN report on climate change and food demands a rethink, but such calls have fallen on deaf ears in the past.

"Business as usual is not an option for Ireland," the Environment Minister said at the launch of the climate action plan. There will be phased incremental increases in carbon tax. Moneypoint will stop burning coal within eight years.

So said then-minister Noel Dempsey at the launch of the National Climate Change Strategy on November 2, 2000.

Yes. We have been here before. The current version is Ireland's fifth climate plan. Some had stronger actions than others. But crucially, none was systematically implemented. The latest UN food warnings suggest that the time for action has arrived and we have gone beyond talking.

Minister Richard Bruton's plan is genuinely different. It was the biggest innovation in Irish climate policy in 20 years. The key is not so much the measures themselves but the new mechanisms to ensure we actually deliver them. The plan lays out fundamental reform of climate policy making, with a robust framework for driving policy development and implementation and ensuring democratic oversight and accountability.

There will be legally binding five-year limits on total pollution, called Carbon Budgets, adopted by the Dáil. This changes the dynamic for ministers and departments who will be negotiating how to divide up and live within that emissions envelope, rather than volunteering only what they wanted to do and hoping it added up. It didn't.

There will be a Delivery Board chaired by the Taoiseach's department, with the kind of clout that no line minister can muster.

The Climate Council, chaired by Professor John Fitzgerald, will be given new powers to advise and evaluate government.

And the highly successful special cross-party committee on climate action will become a Public Accounts Committee for carbon.

And crucially, our 2050 target will be put into law.

If Minister Dempsey's 2000 plan had been underpinned by law, we would not have had to rely on crashing the economy to meet our 2010 Kyoto target.

If the governance reforms announced yesterday had been adopted 12 years ago, when Friends of the Earth first proposed them, Ireland would not now be missing our 2020 target by a country mile.

Even now, after 20 years of false starts, these mechanisms can give us a fighting chance of meeting our 2030 targets. But they need to be put into law, and soon. Before a general election, or a cliff-edge Brexit, or a US-China trade war distracts political attention from the current strong cross-party consensus to put climate action at the heart of government policy.

So my first criticism of Minister Bruton's plan is the timeline for that law.

He proposes to publish the Bill next spring. It should and could be debated in the Dáil in the autumn.

Secondly, many of the sectoral measures are qualified with words like examine, review and consider.

I recognise that this plan only gets us to the starting line on climate action and that not every step to 2050 can be mapped out in advance. But there are a couple of big-ticket items that are far weaker than they should be.

The government was first advised to get out of coal and peat for electricity by the experts preparing Dempsey's 2000 plan. Together they provide less than one-fifth of our electricity but half of the pollution.

Moneypoint was offline for most of the winter and nobody noticed. We can't afford to keep burning coal and peat for the guts of another decade. It doesn't involve "nudging" individuals as the Taoiseach put it, it's a big structural change the Government can make that will make everything the rest of us do cleaner.

The Government should be getting the ESB, Bord na Móna, the unions and community representatives into a room now and negotiating a state-backed just transition agreement. Instead, just transition has been kicked to a review group of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), which the companies and communities aren't even involved in.

As with other sectoral aspects of the plan, one is left with the sense that the Government is all set to nudge individuals but is not keen to stand up to big companies, whether we own them, like the ESB and Bord na Móna, back them, like Irish agri-food giants exporting baby milk powder to China, or see ourselves as dependent on them, like Exxon.

What the genesis of this plan demonstrates more than anything, however, is that the most important role we have as individuals is as citizens. Individuals have a role to play. We will all have to "examine, review and consider" modifying our homes, our road and air transport preferences, and yes of course, as the UN points out, even our diets.

The people who got our political leaders to this starting line are the supporters of Friends of the Earth and the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition, pestering TDs for the last 12 years, the community groups and student groups from Cork to Leitrim and NUIG to Trinity, the people who gave up their time to participate in the Citizens' Assembly, the school strikers fearful for the their futures, and the Extinction Rebels infuriated by inaction.

Now this emerging movement - diverse, creative, anxious and magnificent - has to accompany our 'leaders' every step of the way as we race to zero climate pollution as fast as we can in order to save the future.

Oisín Coghlan is director of Friends of the Earth and co-ordinator of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition

Irish Independent

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