2011-2016: five more lost years for Ireland’s climate response

Below, my article as it appears in the Election Edition of Village magazine. This was written ahead of the publication of the assorted party manifestos (these are just now starting to trickle out) but it seemed a more useful exercise to step back to looking at the 2011 FG/Labour Programme for Government and see, from the environment/climate standpoint, how they actually performed. Here’s what I concluded.

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THE OUTGOING Fine Gael/Labour coalition government did manage to pull off one headline act that had eluded the previous FF/Green administration, and that was they got climate legislation, of sorts, onto the statute books for the first time ever.

In its 2016 Annual Report on the Programme for Government, this fact is trumpeted as burnishing the ecological credentials of an administration that has, over the last five years, shown a strong aversion to what husky-hugging UK prime minister David Cameron once memorably called “that green crap”.

The reason is hardly a mystery. Both IBEC and the IFA are among the lead industry players who have lobbied tirelessly to ensure any climate actions that should emanate from the Cabinet table would be so diluted as to be worthless. And, with Fine Gael in particular basing its entire political pitch on growth-at-all-costs, nothing that looked like slowing that gallop was ever going to be entertained.

‘The recently enacted Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 builds on existing efforts to decarbonise the economy and places the Government’s adaptation efforts on a legal statutory footing’, according to the Annual Report. And those ‘existing efforts’ would be, what exactly?

‘The Act provides for a National Mitigation Plan which will specify how we will achieve our objectives as well as a National Climate Change Adaptation Framework which will provide a strategic policy focus’, it goes on to say. This Mitigation Plan has been safely kicked into that distant place known only as “later in 2016” – somewhere safely beyond the shores of this election.

Back in February 2011, Fine Gael and Labour jointly published their Programme for Government. Its section dealing with climate change ran to all of 95 words, including the promise to deliver a Climate Change Bill, which “will provide certainty surrounding government policy and provide a clear pathway for emissions reductions, in line with negotiated EU 2020 targets”.

The section also promised legislation to give the relevant ministers temporary powers over the State’s response to what it calls ‘natural disasters’. This was at least prescient, given the unnatural number of weather-related disasters that have occurred in the term of the outgoing government, up to and including the severe winter flooding that – yet again – recently plunged much of the Shannon region into chaos.

The last, brief, section in this 2011 document promised to “further improve energy efficiency for new buildings, with a view to moving towards zero carbon homes in the longer term. All new commercial buildings will be required to significantly reduce their carbon footprint”. By ‘further improve’, this presumably meant, at the very least, maintaining the progress of the outgoing FF/Green administration regarding energy efficiency in the building sector.

How has this one measurable commitment panned out? One of the widely accepted successes of the previous government was its home retrofit programme. In 2011, some 67,500 homes underwent an energy overhaul under the scheme. By last year, under FG/Labour, this had plummeted, to just 21,600 energy retrofits. Indeed, efforts by the atrocious outgoing Environment minister Labour’s Alan Kelly to stymie local authorities from pushing towards ‘passive house’ standards speaks volumes for the “green crap” mentality that has pervaded the Cabinet since 2011.

To be fair, the writing was on the wall from the outset. Take a section in the 2011 Programme for Government under the heading ‘Peat’. First off, the incoming administration magisterially granted ‘an exemption for domestic turf cutting on 75 National Heritage Area sites subject to the introduction of agreed national code of environmental practices’. What, you might wonder, is the value of a bog being designated as a National Heritage Area when the government signs off on this free-for-all before even taking office?

Soothingly, they went on to promise to ‘establish an independent mediation to resolve outstanding issues associated with turf cutting on blanket bogs’. It would be unfair to single out the private contractors and their political accomplices for sole mention in this regard.

Three woefully inefficient peat-burning plants in the midlands only remain open thanks to the Public Service Obligation (PSO) levy on electricity bills siphoning some €120 million a year into these plants – that’s around €2.5 million a week in subsidies to produce the dirtiest, poorest grade and most ecologically damaging form of energy possible. In 2014, this State-supported madness exceeded the total PSO support for the production of clean electricity using renewable energy.

Meanwhile, the government has extended the life of these monuments to parochialism and incompetence by another 15 years, which is nicely timed to coincide with 2030, by which time Bord Na Mona will have completed its decades-long assault on some of Europe’s richest ecological regions, as well as what used to be our most efficient carbon sinks. Quite where this fits with the government’s new climate legislations that ‘builds on existing efforts to decarbonise the economy’, it’s difficult to even begin to fathom.

To understand the true objectives of the 2011 Programme for Government, it’s necessary to look elsewhere. For instance, under the section headed ‘Growing the agri-food sector’, the seeds of the agri-steamroller later known as Food Harvest 2020 are clearly set out: ‘Further expansion and innovation in our dairy and meat sectors will be a key priority under a reformed CAP and we will work with industry to achieve more intensive levels of production’.

Note the blunt language above. Such sly euphemisms as ‘sustainable intensification’ hadn’t yet entered the lexicon of spin – this was a straightforward declaration of expansion and intensification. Later in the same section, it mentions that Bord Bia will be given a number of marketing tasks, including developing ‘value-added Irish food brands, such as an eco brand’.

The State food board has been an enthusiastic ambassador of a ‘greenwashed’ Irish food sector. Irish agriculture currently accounts for well over a third of Ireland’s GHG emissions, and this will, according to EPA estimates, rise to 45% by 2020. In a stunning act of moral larceny, one small, albeit politically untouchable, sector of the Irish economy has sequestered virtually half of the entire nation’s emissions budget.

Its boosters, notably outgoing Agriculture minister, Simon Coveney have made it abundantly clear that our most emissions-intensive forms of agriculture (beef production and dairying) are planning to continue to ramp up as the national dairy herd expands dramatically.

The fly in the manure heap is in the form of pesky EU-mandated EU emissions cuts (20% by 2020, rising sharply, to 40% by 2030). This exposes Ireland to fines that even An Taoiseach admits may run towards half a billion euros per annum. Just as the banking industry’s gambling losses were ‘nationalised’, it seems clear that the beef and dairy sectors are using similar political clout to ensure the hapless general taxpayer once again picks up the tab.

Anyhow, if all else fails, it’ll be Enda The Penitent, cap in hand, off to Brussels later this year to ask the big lads if they’d be able to do us a dig-out on all these fines…by rewriting the emissions rules as they might apply to Ireland, in light of the ‘special position’ of our agriculture sector (which is already, lest we forget, in receipt of EU taxpayers’ largesse to the tune of over €2 billion cash transfers annually).

Enda Kenny completely misread the mood of the COP21 Climate Conference in December. He breezed in to Paris to tell journalists not to pay heed to the high-sounding blarney in his formal speech. This backfired spectacularly, leading to some frantic back-pedalling as the gravity of the Paris Agreement came to be better understood. Whether this could help loosen the iron grip of corporate lobbyists on a new Fine Gael-led coalition remains to be seen.

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In Summary:

Climate:

2011: Climate Change legislation promised

2016: Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 delivered, to mixed reviews. Long on aspirations, short on targets or enforceability. Climate Advisory Council, heavily laden with economists, convened.

Home Energy:

2011: Promised to double funding for home energy efficiency & renewable energy until end of 2013, then replace it with ‘pay as you save’ scheme.

2016: 75% fewer homes being retrofitted than five years earlier.

Resources:

2011: Promised to create a new State company, Irish Water to ‘take over the water investment maintenance programmes of the 34 existing local authorities’

2016: After a botched launch and numerous PR fiascos, Irish Water, mired in controversy, staggers on the brink of insolvency. Incentive to conserve water, via pay-as-you-use metering, has disappeared.

Green Jobs:

2011: Ireland to be established as ‘a renewable manufacturing hub to attract international and domestic investment’. Energy co-ops to be supported in order to ‘make it easier for small- scale renewable energy providers to contribute to our renewables targets.’

2016 – Promises long forgotten. No renewable energy ‘hub’, and worse, the feed-in tariff for small-scale energy producers, rather than being expanded, has been scrapped by the ESB, under government guidance.

Energy:

2011 – Promise to ‘support geothermal energy sector’. Commitment to develop wind farms in ‘plan-led’ Gate 4 process, as opposed to existing developer-led model. Government also promised to ‘incentivise and promote off-shore (oil) drilling’

2016 – Geothermal sector – what sector? Patchy progress on bringing more renewable energy onto grid, stymied by rural backlash against both turbines and pylons. No meaningful progress on ‘community energy’ approach so successful in Denmark, Germany.

Transport:

2011 – ‘We recognise the need to rebalance transport policy to favour public transport…’

2016 – Bus and rail fares increased. Private car sales return to pre-2008 levels. Traffic chaos returns to M50. Instead of reducing, emissions from Ireland’s transport sector set to rise by 12% between 2013 and 2012, according to SEAI data.

 

REPORT CARD: The 2011 Programme for Government showed little real engagement with climate or wider environmental issues, with ‘the economy’ overshadowing everything. Having promised little, the government went on to deliver even less. Advice for next term: ‘The dog ate my climate policy’ is not a valid excuse.

OVERALL RATING: D minus (avoided a ‘fail’ by scraping in Climate Act)

 

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5 Responses to 2011-2016: five more lost years for Ireland’s climate response

  1. Paul Price (@swimsure) says:

    You’re being way too generous! Surely passing a toothless Climate Act at the last minute, largely as useful international cover for domestic inaction, cannot help Fine Gael get more than an FAIL on climate action?

    Let’s not forget it was only delivered after four years of blather masquerading as ‘progress’ as listed at length in the ToS post by Barry McMullin http://www.thinkorswim.ie/climateinactionbill/

    Oh yes, and let’s not forget the fabled ‘National Policy Position’, the Government’s declared climate policy that proclaims agriculture gets to emit whatever it wants in an “approach” to “carbon neutrality” (as if this word-play means anything at all), and everything else has to cut by 80% by 2050 relative to 1990 – but, contrary to our Paris commitment, not just yet of course.

    Like the Climate Act and the National Mitigation Plan, it’s another impressive effort to pull the wool down over onlooking eyes and kick the can down the road. I suppose you have to admire the Fine Gael gall.

    Special mention must go to the FG’s favourite Dept of Ag for the things you list above, but also for releasing a Draft Mitigation Plan, cleverly pre-empting the National Mitigation Plan, to boast that agriculture will achieve no cuts at all anytime before 2050 to limit the sector’s massive contribution to national emissions. At least an ‘approach’ to mitigation that involves no mitigation at all has a certain novelty.

    I guess we could stick with a D minus for all this FG creativity in shrouding their climate inaction with so many nicely calculated weasel words. But no, my vote here and very soon is to revise them down to an all too well deserved F.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Hard to argue with your logic on this one, Paul. Guess I was being uncharacteristically charitable when doling out those grades, perhaps this is a legacy of waiting, waiting and waiting some more during the FF/Green coalition years for the ‘Climate Act’ that always seemed to be just around the corner. It led me to think that if the frickin’ Green Party couldn’t deliver on climate legislation, maybe no one could, or would. And yes, exactly as you describe, the FG/Lab Climate Act is lame duck legislation, built to fail and pegged on as a green fig leaf to a pretty rotten administration (from an environmental/climate perspective anyhow). JG

  3. Eric Conroy says:

    Very good article – only reading it now due to the large amount of reading in my in-tray. I agree that the FF/Green coalition should have brought in a climate act and I voiced my concerns to the party then. When people ask me on the current canvass, what did the Greens do in government (apart from bringing the country into financial chaos with Fianna Fail!), I cannot mention much – the lack of a CC bill is very striking.

  4. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks Eric. What’s most worrying is the passage of time, from one administration to the next, and all the while the natural world is unravelling before our eyes and the ‘climate crisis’ now more resembles a bottomless pit than road-bump that so many of our political classes have – tragically – mistaken it for.

  5. Pingback: Election 2016: more fudge and waffle on climate change | ThinkOrSwim (the Climatechange.ie Blog)

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