Now that the Climate Change Response Bill 2010 has officially been consigned to the scrap heap, it is a good time to take stock of how the public debate around the Bill played out. As has already been discussed on this blog, the most vocal opponents of the Bill were IBEC, the IFA and the ICMSA.
In particular, the claim made by the IFA, based on research by Teagasc, that the introduction of this Bill would result in a 40% reduction in the national herd made a lot of headlines and helped stir up the farming community against the Bill. It also proved to be valuable fodder for Fine Gael Senators in the Second Stage Seanad debates that took place in January. In total, the research in question was directly referenced by four Fine Gael Senators (Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Paddy Burke and Joe O’Reilly) and an Independent with close agricultural ties (Feargal Quinn).
What’s more, the Irish Times very kindly reprinted the IFA’s letter to Senators that urged them to reject even discussing the Climate Bill due to the “highly disingenuous and undemocratic” way in which the public consultation had not yet closed (a valid point). The letter made sure to highlight Teagasc’s alarming findings, including the idea that the bill could eventually cost the Irish economy €4 billion.
And so the lobbying might of the IFA was revealed once again when we learned of IFA president John Bryan’s meetings with opposition Senators to push for concessions. He was also given the opportunity to present to the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security to voice his concerns. Unfortunately, no such invitation was extended to any Irish environmental NGOs to present an alternative view. These efforts paid off when the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture announced its cross-party decision not to support the Climate Bill.
So given the importance of Teagasc’s research in the IFA’s efforts to portray the bill as a threat to the agricultural sector, where was it? Was it available on Teagasc’s website or did it appear in a peer-reviewed journal? During a phone conversation, an employee of Teagasc’s Research Centre admitted that the research had not yet been published and had not been peer reviewed but that they intended to include the material in their submission to the public consultation that closed on 28 January. In other words, the research would not be made publicly available until after the public consultation had closed.
Finally, of debate over this very point, including academic wrangling over carbon sinks and the like so one might be inclined to forgive Teagasc for the error. Except that the Department of Environment published a document clarifying the 2020 targets as a 26% reduction on 2008.
And crucially, the warning that 40% of the national herd will be culled quickly unravels as it transpires that this figure was based on “a hypothetical scenario of proportional burden sharing across sectors, where this overall target translates into a 30% reduction target for the agricultural sector”. Such a scenario was rightly dismissed as “absurd” by Green Senator Dan Boyle in the Seanad debate, primarily because no sector specific targets existed in the Bill.
According to the SEAI publication “Ireland’s Low Carbon Opportunity”*, the potential for reducing agricultural emissions without structural changes is limited, although opportunities exist in adjustments to grassland management. If the abatement of agricultural emissions is so difficult, why would a future government decide to place a proportional burden on this sector? It makes no sense, economic or otherwise.
Significant abatement potential exists in many other parts of the economy that are cheaper and more technologically feasible to achieve. It makes far more sense to pursue other avenues of abatement such as the retrofitting of commercial and residential buildings and other efficiency measures.
So where does this leave us? A seriously flawed piece of unpublished research from a semi-state body that misinformed the public and political debate around domestic climate legislation. For an organisation that was being considered for a seat on the Expert Advisory Board, Teagasc have shown a worrying disregard for the appropriate role of scientific research in policy debates. The media, for their part, were complicit in publishing the figures without question.
And, of course, The IFA made good use of Teagasc’s research to bolster their case against the Bill and rally the agricultural sector to their cause. Certainly, the IFA’s complaint that the consultation process surrounding this Bill was “highly disingenuous and undemocratic” rings hollow in light of its willingness to use unpublished and inaccurate research to further its own aims. Let’s hope that both the IFA and Teagasc base their arguments on solid data the next time we find ourselves debating an Irish Climate Bill.
*As an aside it is worth noting that in the SEAI study that dates from July 2009, $60/bbl was used as a low price scenario and $120/bbl was considered a high oil price. In its latest “World Energy Outlook” report, the International Energy Agency suggests that average oil prices could almost double by 2035 from $60/bbl to $113/bbl (in year-2009 dollars). Such a sustained increase in oil prices would require significant revision of the price assumptions in marginal abatement cost studies.
– Tara Connolly is Co-ordinator of VOICE of Irish Concern
for the Environment (Voiceireland.org)