Wednesday 19 June 2019

The Big Read: After the Green Wave - will we follow through?

The big read: Voters supported Greens in the local and euro elections but are they prepared for the cost of tackling the climate crisis? Kim Bielenberg and John Meagher report

Surge: Green Party member Ciarán Cuffe celebrates after being the first MEP elected in the Dublin constituency. Picture by Eamonn Farrell
Surge: Green Party member Ciarán Cuffe celebrates after being the first MEP elected in the Dublin constituency. Picture by Eamonn Farrell
Vision: Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. Picture by Damien Eagers

They want to phase out petrol and diesel cars and ban oil and gas exploration in Irish waters.

Instead of building roads, they want to spend the money on public transport, and they will seek to reduce the number of cattle in Ireland and put taxes on air travel.

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The Greens are celebrating victories in elections across Ireland and in many parts of Europe.

Encouraged by campaigners such as the 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, a large number of voters decided it was time for action on climate change.

Vision: Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. Picture by Damien Eagers
Vision: Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. Picture by Damien Eagers

But what would the effects on our everyday lives be if this popular movement manages to implement some of its policies?

Read more here: Meet your new Green Councillors

Already in Europe, Green policies are being put into practice. A survey by Climate Action Network last year showed that Thunberg's home country Sweden leads the pack when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Over half of all energy in Sweden comes from renewable sources including hydropower, wind or solar, and the country regularly hits its targets on greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the heaviest carbon taxes in Europe has encouraged consumers to move from fossil fuels to renewable sources.

Sweden's towns will soon be allowed to ban old diesel cars from their town centres in an effort to improve the environment.

Tax on flying

And since last year, the Nordic country has slapped an ecological tax on flying. Passengers boarding a flight departing from Sweden will have to pay an added charge of between 6€ and 39€.

The Irish Green Party supports a tax on flying, because of the high C02 emissions.

An aviation tax is also advocated by John Gibbons, a member of An Taisce's Climate Change Committee. He says the tax exemption on fuel is extraordinary, given the high environmental cost of aviation.

Gibbons estimates that fuel taxes and VAT would add €26 to the price of an average €80 plane ticket. Would holidaymakers be prepared to put up with that even if they gave their vote to a Green?

While Sweden is at the forefront of tackling climate change, its neighbour Norway also has ambitious plans to cut emissions. If the streets of Oslo seem quiet these days, it is because one-third of all new cars sold in Norway are electric.

While the Irish target to move away from petrol and diesel by 2030 still seems remote, in Norway they plan to introduce a fully electric fleet of cars by 2025.

The Norwegian government has encouraged a boom in electric cars by making them as cheap as petrol and diesel cars through tax exemptions.

There are much higher duties on petrol and diesel cars. Drivers of electric cars also enjoy free parking and tolls in many places, and they can travel in the bus lane.

The Greens support a move away from fossil fuel cars to electric vehicles, but Eamon Ryan believes we should not be relying on these cars to meet our transport needs.

"Simply replacing an internal combustion engine car with an electric vehicle is not sustainable," he says.

"We support switching spending expenditure away from roads so that it is two-to-one in favour of public transport.

"At the moment we are widening every approach road into Dublin, and then cutting down trees to cope with the traffic. That does not make any sense at all."

Since the green wave swept over Ireland last weekend, exaggerated in its scale by an RTÉ exit poll, there has been much discussion about whether well-meaning individuals who voted for the party are really prepared to live with the perceived costs of going green.

But the Green Party leader Eamon Ryan retorts that we cannot afford to live with the costs of climate change if we do nothing - and we have already been given hints of it through summer droughts and damaging winter floods.

"If we fail to meet targets for greenhouse gas emissions, we will also face penalties of up to €600m per year," he says.

The real test of the Green influence on the Government will come when Fine Gael decides on its approach to a carbon tax.

We already have a carbon tax levied on fossil fuels such as petrol, diesel, coal and peat at €20 per tonne of CO2, and it costs the average household €200 per year.

Last year, the Government planned to increase the tax in Budget 2019 to €30 per tonne which would have added about €1 to a bag of coal and about 25 cent to a bale of briquettes, as well as hiking fuel prices.

Fine Gael ducked the issue, possibly frightened by the potential reaction of consumers. But will they change their minds amid the public clamour to tackle climate change and the surge in the Green vote?

Read more here: Kevin Doyle: 'Green policies are eye-catching but have to be paid for somehow'

'Gilets jaunes' protests

Leo Varadkar's Government is likely to proceed cautiously after the furious public reaction in France when President Emmanuel Macron tried to introduce increased taxes on petrol, diesel and heating oil.

The tax led to the "gilets jaunes" protests across France that have at times turned violent.

Macron did not make the imposition of environmental taxes any easier by simultaneously cutting corporate and wealth taxes, creating the impression that he was targeting the low-income earner. He eventually backed down.

Eamon Ryan says a carbon tax in Ireland should be introduced in a different way, so that households are given money back in a direct payment.

"What people worry about is what it is going to cost them in their pocket," says the Green Party leader. "All the evidence shows that if you give money back, those on low incomes would benefit the most."

Ryan says the environmental movement has come to realise that tackling climate change is not about putting pressure on the individual to behave in a certain way.

It will not just be achieved by worthy citizens cleaning out their yoghurt pots and dutifully placing them in the green bin.

"It's about making it easy for people to do the right thing. That is about changing the system organised by government. If it is just down to individual choice, it won't work."

The Green Party has called for the immediate closure of the coal-fired power station at Moneypoint in Co Clare.

The UCD environmental scientist Dr Cara Augustenborg says: "Moneypoint has been closed for long periods of time for servicing recently and we got by just fine without it. That begs the question about whether we really need it when we have so much wind on stream?"

The Green Party wants an end to turf cutting on bogs, which act as a carbon sink through their absorption of CO2.

Peat plant closures

John Gibbons of An Taisce says peat bogs are some of Ireland's most important carbon sinks and can sequester more atmospheric carbon dioxide than an equivalent area of rain forest.

While commentators dwell on the cost of Green policies, Gibbons says burning peat to generate electricity is uneconomic and inefficient and that Irish taxpayers are currently paying massive subsidies to keep peat plants running.

The inevitable closure of the peat plants could lead to massive job losses in the midlands.

In order to tackle this, the Green Party supports the involvement of Bord Na Mona in supplying renewable energy, and retraining workers to meet the demand for retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient.

Those with long memories will wonder whether the Green Party can achieve much if they are part of a government again.

Their previous outing from 2007 to 2011, in coalition with Fianna Fáil, proved to be extremely difficult. Before the government formed, Ciarán Cuffe, then a Dún Laoghaire TD, warned that the unlikely alliance would be a "deal with the devil", and the Greens were limited in what they could achieve by the time of the economic crash.

John Gibbons of An Taisce says one of the achievements of the Greens in government was to introduce improved building standards in new homes so that they saved energy.

"This had a significant impact and has led to much cheaper energy bills," says Gibbons.

The Greens will push for greater incentives for retrofitting homes so that do not rely on fossil fuels and they also want to encourage the installation of rooftop solar panels.

Cara Augustenborg says Ireland is missing out on a rooftop revolution such as that in Germany.

Up to a million homes and businesses in Germany now use solar, and a growing number are capable of storing energy and redistributing it to the power grid.

Solar power

Dr Augustenborg says solar power presents many opportunities for Irish farmers, but so far the big energy companies are not keen to deal with small operators feeding electricity into the grid.

Farmers might be concerned that the Greens will target them with their policy of scaling down meat and dairy production.

Eamon Ryan believes farmers should still be supported through the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, but the payments should be made to provide environmental services such as improving water quality and biodiversity.

He also believes there should be a greater focus on organic farming. "We should be following the example of Austria where 20pc of agriculture is organic and farmers are thriving."

The agronomist Dr Richie Hackett says the farming sector can work constructively with the Greens on the issue of climate change.

"The Greens are right to a certain extent. We have to ensure that Irish beef is produced well and it is not damaging to the environment."

Sustainability may be a buzz word in Brussels, but threats to reduce the number of cows can raise hackles.

"For many farmers it is a cultural thing with them," says Dr Hackett. "You could talk to any farmer even if they are in tillage, and they love to keep a few cattle."

As well as the big issue of climate change, the Greens have promised to tackle other issues at local level, appointing a "night czar" to revitalise night-time culture.

They would appoint "street officers" to monitor dog poo, and provide 10,000 drinking fountains so that we would not have to buy plastic bottles. They have also pledged to extend the amount of time given to the green man at pedestrian crossings. Motorists might be fuming in the traffic, but walkers would be eternally grateful for that.

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