Oisín Coghlan: 'Let's make 2019 the year we act on climate for a healthier future'
Politicians and the public are paying attention to climate change like never before. We have the opportunity to make 2019 the year Ireland finally takes climate action seriously.
A special all-party Oireachtas committee is considering the far-reaching but practical recommendations from the Citizens' Assembly and will report at the end of January. The new minister, Richard Bruton, is promising a new all-of-Government climate action plan, modelled on the Action Plan for Jobs, that will lead to "a revolution in how we live". So what should be in it?
A Just Transition Task Force
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We have known for 20 years we have to stop burning coal and peat for electricity. We need a Just Transition Task Force now, with representatives from the unions, the ESB and Bord Na Móna, all the State agencies, NGOs like Irish Rural Link and local community development representatives. It needs the resources and authority to support affected workers, and their families and communities, to find new jobs and plan for a sustainable future for their region.
Moneypoint is closed now and has been for months, due to a fault. The lights are still on, proving we don't need to burn coal even during peak winter demand. Serious consideration should be given to leaving Moneypoint offline. Coal provided just 12pc of our electricity in 2017 but more than 25pc of our climate pollution from electricity.
Peat is even worse, providing just 7pc of our electricity but producing 20pc of our pollution. We've been subsidising it to the tune of more than €100m a year. That direct subsidy ends in 2019, but Bord na Móna wants to keep burning peat for another 10 years, by co-firing its power plants with wood. We should wstop burning peat in 2020 and use the subsidies we save to support the affected workers and communities.
A payment for small-scale solar generation
Every school should have solar panels on their roofs, generating electricity and income. So should parish halls, sports clubs and farm buildings. It's happening across Europe but doesn't happen here because you have to give away power you don't use to the ESB for free. Ireland does community-scale well, from Tidy Towns to GAA. We know there's huge enthusiasm for community energy. We need to unlock that potential with a rooftop revolution that puts citizens at the heart of the energy transition.
An SSIA scheme for insulation, and a Tipperary Energy Agency for every county
We need to upgrade at least 100,000 homes a year between now and 2030. Houesholders are going to have to invest themselves, but the State has to make it attractive and simple. Something like the old SSIA scheme, for every €4 you invest in retrofitting your home, the State gives you €1.
But it's not just a financial challenge, householders also need project management support to figure out what they need to get done and what contractor to trust to do it and at what price. The Tipperary Energy Agency has built up an unrivalled capability and reputation for doing that well in a way that appeals to people. We need to scale up the same capacity in every county in Ireland.
Transport is the area our pollution has risen fastest. We should implement the very simple Citizens' Assembly recommendation that one-third of the transport budget should go on roads and two-thirds should go on public transport, cycling and walking, reversing the current ratio. We should implement the UN recommendation that 20pc of the budget should go on cycling and walking (less than 2pc does now), as that also tackles obesity and promotes healthy lifestyles.
These are two simple but essential policy tools we lack. The new climate and energy plan should come with two five-year carbon budgets, voted on by the Dáil. That's simply the total amount of pollution Ireland will emit from 2021-2025 and 2026-2030.
Departments then negotiate within that for their share of the pie, just like the fiscal budget. At the moment there's nothing to translate national targets into departmental discipline. Moreover, no Government policy that might affect our emissions should be adopted by Cabinet in the dark. It should run the numbers and estimate how much emissions will go up or down. That assessment should be in front of Cabinet when it makes the decision, and it should be published when it announces it.
A cheque in the post
We are going to need to increase the price on carbon, in line with the polluter pays principle. It will give a steady signal that every time we have a choice, choosing the less polluting option will save us money, as will investing in energy saving.
There are a number of ways to do carbon tax, but in an era when trust in politicians is low I favour the simplest, most transparent model, called "tax and dividend", where 100pc of the tax revenue is given straight back as an equal flat lump sum to every man, woman and child in Ireland.
On average, poorer households spend less than richer households on polluting goods so the tax is a cash transfer from rich to poor. We all still face a price signal, polluting products get more and more expensive, but as we make the transition we protect those most vulnerable and those for whom less polluting choices are not readily available. So, in Budget 2020 the Dáil should vote for a €20 increase in the carbon tax and for a €5 increase every year after that. On January 1, 2020, we should all get our first carbon dividend cheque.
In Al Gore's film 'An Inconvenient Truth', he worried we would go from denial to despair without stopping in the middle for action. That is the choice we face right now. But it's an easy choice: who wouldn't want a warmer home with lower bills, better public transport and healthier lifestyles, and a chance for your community to own the energy that will power the future? Oh, plus a decent shot at containing climate change enough to protect that future.
Let's make 2019 the year we finally step up, and set off on a safer, healthier path.
Oisín Coghlan is director of Friends of the Earth, a member of the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition