Naughten Sleeps through another Wake-Up Call on Climate Change

07 December 2017

*Embargoed until 7.40pm

Speech by Brendan Ryan TD

Labour Party Whip and Spokesman on Defence

Naughten Sleeps through another Wake-Up Call on Climate Change

Dáil Éireann, Statements on Climate Change

7th December 2017


We need to acknowledge, across the board, in Government and Opposition, that Ireland’s engagement with the climate change agenda has been mediocre at its best.

This is one of those issues where we in this country like to look down on the Americans. And in fairness, we don’t have a major problem here, as they do in America, with a lobby of climate change deniers. Our problem is different.

If the American people did appreciate the reality of climate change, there is no doubt they would demand that something be done about it. Whereas we in Ireland see the problem, accept it as fact, but we still do nothing.

Or, if not nothing, then not enough. And, given the science of climate change and the global temperature tipping point, doing not enough is as bad as doing nothing.

So, on the one hand, we accept in this country that the world is warming and that human activity is the dominant cause. The urgent need to address climate change is largely accepted in political debate and among the general public.

But, on the other hand, our record in achieving ambitious targets, within tight timeframes, has been, and remains, poor.

As a result we are most unlikely to meet our legally binding greenhouse gas reduction targets by 2020 and we will become open to sanction for breach of EU rules.

The Citizens’ Assembly report is proof positive that, unlike the USA, the general public here is way ahead in its thinking of the politicians and the civil service.

Some 98% of the members of the Citizens’ Assembly recommended that climate change should be at the centre of policymaking. A total of 100% of members recommended that the State should take a leadership role in addressing climate change. And 80% said that they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon-intensive activities.

Meanwhile, however, in three years’ time we as a state will be lawbreakers. The only question will be the extent of our liability. It looks like the fines may be of the order of at least €450 million – a shocking amount of money to hand over for our failure to plan for what has been coming down the road towards us for so long.

And we will by then be faced with a new round of reduction targets, for 2030 and beyond, already considerably in arrears and desperately trying to catch up.

Under the EU Climate and Energy Package, the target set for Ireland is that our GHG emissions should by 2020 be 20% below their 2005 values.

The fact is that we let the recession do the heavy lifting for us. Emissions peaked in 2001, with reductions in 8 of the last 10 years. The reductions were entirely due to reduced economic activity, rather than the impact of any Government policy for permanent remedial measures.

And, just as we lowered our emissions during the economic crisis, now that the economy is picking up again our emissions are once again increasing, in line with economic and employment growth.

And bear in mind that this is while domestic construction is still in the doldrums. Just imagine what the figures will be like when this Government finally gets around to building some houses.

So, our emissions are on the increase, rather than reducing, and every reasonable projection for 2020 shows that we will miss those 2020 reduction targets, by a country mile.

As of today, Ireland emits more greenhouse gases than the 400 million poorest people on earth. And, of the top 10 per capita greenhouse gas emission polluters in the OECD, we rank number nine.

The Environmental Protection Agency figures for 2016 show a 3.5% increase, broken down to show that agriculture emissions increased by 2.7%, transport emissions by 3.7% and energy industry emissions by 6.1%.

There were significant increases across all of the main sectors and an overall trend of increasing emissions. National emissions have now increased by 7% in just two years, indicating that we have not managed to decouple emissions from economic growth.

Even if you take account of all policies and measures in the pipeline, we will not meet those 2020 targets. In other words, full implementation of all Government policies and measures, including targets for energy efficiency in our homes and businesses and increasing renewable fuel use in transport and heating, will not be enough.

And it gets worse. First, the policies and measures currently in place will not see us comply with EU law and meet our current targets. But, second, new obligations for Ireland, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions even more during the years 2021 to 2030, are under negotiation.

And, the further away Ireland is from our 2020 target, the more difficult the compliance challenges in the following decade will be.

So, the Government now backpedals. They argue that our 2020 target, unanimously approved here, was all along ‘unscientific’ and was never in fact achievable.

And they argue that we should not be told to curb our efficient agricultural practices and see it moved it to less efficient parts of the world.

This argument ignores the inconvenient fact that the projected growth in beef and dairy exports is posited on a change in Asian feeding habits that would of itself lead to increased carbon emissions, no matter where their food comes from.

What is clear from all of this is that, during successive administrations, the much-vaunted ‘whole of government’ approach was simply non-existent. There was no joined-up thinking, no overall Government vision and commitment.

The only sector that was close to achieving its target is electricity, for which the Department of Energy is responsible. But that has gone into reverse, perversely, because one branch of Government policy permits the ESB to burn more coal at Moneypoint now that coal is cheaper – even though this completely contradicts another branch of Government policy.

The other sectors, each answerable to a different Department, have made no or no adequate efforts to reduce emissions.

We have been criticised, not just by our own EPA, but also at international level by the European Environment Agency, which points out that Ireland is the third highest producer of emissions per person in the EU and is one of just seven member states which are set to miss the 2020 targets.

Other bodies at international level, such as the Climate Change Performance Index, have ranked Ireland as the worst performing country in Europe for action on climate change.

As we are now coming belatedly to recognise, we face significant fines when we fail to meet our targets. And it looks like the State is also facing serious domestic legal challenges, grounded on a newly declared constitutional right to a sound environment.

But, while the EPA’s annual report serves for the rest of us as a wake-up call, Minister Denis Naughten and his colleagues give every impression that they have slept through the alarm. Again.

A new mix of policies is very badly needed.

Funding climate action requires public, private, societal and taxation mechanisms. Reliance solely on Exchequer-funded grant schemes is neither affordable nor adequate to the scale of the challenge. A new suite of policies may well involve more stick and less carrot than we are used to.

We could be on the brink of a transformational change in our everyday lives – how we plan our cities, how we travel and how we power and heat our homes. These new ways of living could bring enormous opportunities to innovate and to create jobs.

But the benefits of this change will accrue to the early movers and adapters, not to the laggards. We need to up our game dramatically, or we will lose out.

Instead of a choice between what’s best for the environment and what’s best for people in their everyday lives, with proper planning and implementation these objectives could be mutually compatible.

The Government needs to take a strong leadership role on climate action. We have advantages because many State-owned companies, such as the ESB, Bord na Móna and Coillte, are operating in the energy sector and can be dynamic agents of change, in an area where State intervention and activism are crucial. The market alone, unaided, cannot deliver the transformation to the low-carbon, and ultimately zero-carbon, economy we need to achieve.

Finally, this is not just a national or even a European issue. This is also an international issue of climate justice. It is the poorest and least developed countries, those which have done the least to cause climate change, which will be hit the hardest.

Mary Robinson spoke recently at the COP23 UN climate change conference in Bonn about the need to ensure the right to participation and decision-making by those from the least developed countries, as we make the transition to zero carbon. She urged the implementation of a Marshall Plan-type intervention, to ensure that everyone has access to renewable energy. This is also a critical way of tackling global poverty.

We need to put behind us the fixed set of ideas that economic progress inevitably means increased emissions, for ourselves or in the developing world. We need to decouple emissions from economic growth, see the enormous economic benefit in growing sustainable energy and move resolutely towards the zero-carbon economy.

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