Critical Time For Climate Law: Transformation or Decline?

“An Irishman’s heart”, according to Geroge Bernard Shaw, “is nothing but his imagination”.

One interpretation of this wonderful double entendre is that as a people we are characterized by a creative approach to problem solving, artistic, ingenious, and flexible.

This characterization has certainly been brought into question further to the rapid demise of the celtic tiger. We generated enormous wealth, and all we could think to do with it was invest it in building houses, apartment buildings, car parks and hotels. We had an opportunity to build a smart, green and healthy society – we even knew how to do it – but we blew it.

Ireland’s first National Climate Change Strategy published in 2000 now reads like a list of missed opportunities: the promised progressive introduction of carbon taxes from 2002; the immediate rebalancing of VRT for cars; modal shift to public transport; comprehensive strategies to deal with energy inefficient housing; achieving higher residential densities; or negotiated agreements with industry to increase efficiency and reduce emissions.

The complete systems failure of planning policy over this period and successive examples of introduction of government legislation at the behest of special interests (or the inability to introduce reform which would have been in the public good) has been well documented. So bad had Dublin’s urban sprawl become that by 2005 the European Environmental Agency had begun using Dublin as an example of a “worst-case scenario” for new EU member states.

An evaluation of the history of climate change policy (which I have recently undertaken, see also this paper) in Ireland demonstrates clearly that policy formulating is not the main impediment – the ERM consultancy blueprint for Kyoto compliance and subsequent first climate change strategy of 2000 are excellent documents.

The issue is that none of the policies identified therein were implemented on time, and many still await implementation.

Research highlights two primary reasons for the failure to implement climate policy: lobbying of special interests against measures that are perceived to have a disproportionate impact on their stakeholders; and the support of these interests by their respective government departments. In these instances, legislation has often been postponed indefinitely. The public interest suffers.

This is why a climate law is required. What is significant about the proposed bill is the extent to which it would constitute an improvement on the current status quo as far as implementation of policies are concerned.

On Wednesday the Dáil Committee on Energy and Climate Change led by Liz McManus T.D. published a draft climate law. The worthy work of the committee and Deputy McManus in particular has served to keep the issue on the political radar.

A similar climate law which is being prepared by the Department of Environment apparently continues its slow progress. At wednesday’s launch Deputy Trevor Sargent T.D. informed us that this bill was approaching finalisation.

Unfortunately there is now a real fear that the bill has been savaged beyond recognition and no longer resembles the robust piece of legislation which is required.

In seeking to address past failures of implementation the key aspects of the climate law are as follows:

  • It must establish 5-yearly “climate budgets” (to 2050), proposed by an independent Climate Change Commission. Longer time periods which do not coincide with electoral cycles are likely to have the effect of efforts being “back-loaded”. This would not constitute an improvement on the status quo. I am reliably informed that this aspect of the bill is currently being undermined.
  • These budgets should establish an overall emissions target and indicative greenhouse gas emissions trajectory for the economy, as well as an indistinctive trajectory for each polluting sector.
  • The bill must impose a statutory obligation on the CCC to report annually on:
    • Progress on meeting overall indicative target set out in budget;
    • Progress of sectors in meeting indicative sectoral trajectory set out in budget; and
    • Critically, is must empower the CCC to propose additional policies and measures to be implemented in the case where a “distance to indicative target” is identified. This “red flag” is an integral part of any proposed legislation. Without this mechanism, the proposed bill will not be an improvement on the current arrangement for formulation of climate policy.
    • This annual report must be published.

If the serving Government refuses to implement the recommendations of the CCC, they would be publically required to explain why the policy recommendations put forward by an independent and expert group were not being implemented, and identify alternative measures to bridge the “distance to target”.

The targets themselves are less important – they already exist under European law. It is about implementation, implementation, implementation.

There are “yerra it’ll be grand” elements in government and officialdom attempting to undermine the Bill and protect the status quo of failure. Clearly this bill is seen by the forces that brought this country to the brink of ruin as an impediment to growth and development, rather than an enabler of the low-carbon prosperity.

It is difficult to live in a country where this sort of “fail before we have started” mentality can predominate. It really is transformation or decline now for the Irish economy. If we do not have the vision and imagination to realize this, and the structures in place to affect this transformation, the future does not look bright.

The other interpretation of Shaw’s reflections on the Irishman’s heart would then be more appropriate: that we are a heartless lot that care nothing for the damage we are inflicting on our children’s and grandchildren’s generation, nor the world’s poor.

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  • http://happiestlandonearth.blogspot.com/ Richard

    An old friend of mine who has done very well in the Celtic Tiger years is probably representative of the cultural problem involved in changing Irish mindsets. An otherwise competent, intelligent and above all decent fellow thinks we couldn´t have done anything other than we did. At every point in time he views implementing sensible planning and infrastructural policies would have been too costly. Indeed they probably were “expensive” but the cost would have been front loaded and not the huge balloon payment we now face for remediation of Dublin´s urban sprawl and dipsersed residential settlements. The new argument against change is that it is…too costly. The idea that we can find €50 billion to save a commercial bank but can´t write and implement and pay for green development is astonishing but this is what is happening. Why? Becuase the Irish govennment is effectively owned by a ruling class uninterested in the general welfare of the country off of which they leech.
    It is also abetted by embedded technocrats immersed in the ideology of laissez-faire Anglo-Saxon capitalism.

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    Excellent, if depressing, analysis Joe. Had been wondering who was strangling our long-promised Climate Act. If the Greens can’t deliver this one, really you’d have to ask what the point was exactly of hanging around to prop up the FF Muppet Show for the last 3 years, and being eviscerated for their fruitless troubles.

  • Pope Epopt

    @John Gibbons

    Check. But, in general, as a party that accepts capitalism with all the short-termism and externalisation of costs into the future that it implies, the Irish Greens could never deliver on Climate Change risk reduction.

  • Joseph Curtin

    @ All

    Clarification: it has been pointed out to me that there is a very firm conviction to deliver on a strong climate bill in government.

    This in particular:

    “Unfortunately there is now a real fear that the bill has been savaged beyond recognition and no longer resembles the robust piece of legislation which is required”

    has been challenged. Time will tell I suppose.

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    Delighted to hear that, Joe, but as the Romans used to say: Habeus corpus!

  • Lesley O’Connor

    Here here! Excellent, and informative analysis Joe.

    So, regarding implementation, the democratic system, and counter-acting the lobbying those with vested (short-term) interest in the said status quo, what can you suggest those of us who do care, who do have both heart and imagination DO about our current predicament? If we are discussing implementation and actioning policy, let’s ACT ourselves.

    It seems to me that it is time for a concerted rallying (and educating) of the troops. Of the mainstream: the man on the street – not those of us who read this blog and are therefore already somewhat involved, at least conceptually.

    In terms of public lobbying the current Friends of the Earth campaign http://www.foe.ie/takeaction/ may be at least a place to start, although their communication to TDs could do with more weight – more substance, as provided by your analysis above Joe. And it needs to be more broadly communicated to gain the required momentum.

    What we need is a single entity to unite and lead the disseminate environmental interest groups (there are many…), and the public (who I continue to believe [would] support the issues even if they are presently somewhat ignorant/apathetic of/towards them…) to demand that the bill is delivered and implemented, in it’s entirety, for the public good. This government is regularly chastised for its inability to communicate: the lack of public awareness of the delay and issues with this particular bill is to my mind a case in point – the Greens need to up the anti RE communications to gather the political support that is thus far lacking.

    So, two things are needed: (1) broad dissemination of this information, and (2) a united effort. Who shall lead?

    It is a challenge: it will take both heart and imagination. What say you?

  • Joseph Curtin

    @ Lesley

    Fancy meeting you on here! I have provided the above information to several folks across the political divide in Dail. I’ve been assures that a strong bill is in the offing so fingers crossed.

    I nominate you to lead by the way:)

  • Terence

    I think the problem is far more intractable. Lets suppose a strong version of the Climate Act was passed by some magic. What then? As soon as it came up against one of the vested interests, there is no chance any of the power in the law would be exercised. We have got to remember that the relatively small group (who have lead the country to ruin) have access to most of the political, financial and crucically media resoures of the country. And even if it is not direct access, they can always rely on and trust that their fellow travellers in the media will trot out the ‘party’ line in their support.

    The public are and continue to be constantly very effectively mislead and misinformed on all things environmental by these people. Thus given that state of things, the groundswell of support can never be generated to support the Climate Act and to implement it. What politician would go forth boldly only to be savaged by sound-bites in the largely corporate/private owned media?

    It is no use if one or two websites or other media outlets support something. Its not enough and never will be simply because not enough eyes can fall on it. Look at it this way, if all the billboards for softdrinks in Dublin carried adverts for Coke, but there were two somewhere that carried adverts for Pepsi, who do you think is going to make the most sales? Besides people would be thrown into confusion and doubt seeing the Pepsi ad and would retreat back to the safety of Coke. And so it is for trying to promote any form of sensible environmental policies against the widespread nonesense opposing it that appears in every newspaper, magazine, TV channel, radio channel, and popular websites visited by the masses.

    Until all of that changes, nothing will change. But then the propaganda system is the heart of the poltical system.

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    Terence, I suspect your analysis of the intractability of these problems within the current political/economic paradigm is spot-on. Garrett Fitzgerald has an excellent piece in the IT today re. the failure of Irish civil society to develop an ethical framework, leading ultimately to the current 80bn euro speculation debacle while the self-serving elites, from the media, Church, politics, unions and business were too busy burying their snouts in the trough to have looked up to see it coming. And where the economy goes, rest assured, the environment isn’t far behind. And boy, will we be surprised – again.

  • EWI

    The public are and continue to be constantly very effectively mislead and misinformed on all things environmental by these people.

    The climate sciences bear a large part of the burden of responsibility for this. Where are they on actively educating the public? Why do they not publicly speak out against the spin and lies being disseminated against their field, not to mention the scurrilous fake scandals whipped up against individual prominent members of their field? Why is holding forth on climate science in this country largely left to an individual who is no friend of the scientific facts and has sought to undermine them in every way he can?

  • http://www.climatechange.ie John Gibbons

    @EWI

    Real scientists seem to struggle with charlatans who are prepared to twist words, skew meaning and misrepresent facts. They mumble incessantly about them, off the record, of course. But as for facing them down, public squabbling really doesn’t sit well with (most) academics.

    This in turn leaves the public understanding of science highly vulnerable to deliberate misrepresentation and oversimplification, and the odd scientist who pops up to point out the complexities and uncertainties in climate science can expect a short shriff from the media. The fraud Bjorn Lomborg on the other hand is a convincing SOB in media performances – cool, confident, open, chatty, anecdotal, iconoclastic, with lots of clever soundbites that editors love.

    Compare this to a humming-and-hawing scientist dragged reluctantly from his laboratory to face a sceptical media, who’ve been sold the line that real scientists are con men while said actual con men are really gutsy outsiders breaking up this nepotistic scientific “cosy consensus”.