Green shoots of climate progress appear

Budget 2024 was announced in mid-October and was, by any stretch, a very good day for the Greens in government. Despite being the perennial butt of political and media jokes, they have by and large kept their heads down and beavered away quietly on delivering an ambitious change agenda. I filed this comment piece for the Irish Examiner.

THE TRUE significance of Budget 2024 from an environmental point of view may be best understood by looking at our recent past. Over the last two decades, Ireland’s collective response to the emerging climate and biodiversity crises has been, at best, piecemeal and at worst, recklessly negligent.

This can be most clearly illustrated by considering the fate of the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS), the agency charged with managing all the State’s extensive natural amenities, as well as policing crimes against wildlife. In 2008, its budget was 46.6 million, but the Fine Gael-led coalition gutted the organisation as part of its post-crash austerity programme, with funding falling by 70% to just 14 million by 2011.

While the NPWS was by no means the only State agency to see its funding slashed, the severity of the cuts were indicative of an indifference bordering on hostility to nature protection that seemed to have been the zeitgeist of the time.

This was best captured by then agriculture minister, Simon Coveney’s declaration in April 2015 that aggressive expansion plans for the Irish dairy sector should not be constrained by petty concerns over emissions or pollution. “Nobody in the Irish administration ever suggested that agriculture was going to reduce emissions long term”, as Coveney’s remarkably candid assessment at the time.

Elections matter. The arrival of a cohort of 12 Green Party TDs into government in 2020 was on the back of the huge climate marches of the previous year and indicated that public anxiety about environmental issues had nudged from the fringes and was moving slowly towards the heart of political decision-making.

The centrepiece of Budget 2024 from an ecological standpoint is undoubtedly the Infrastructure, Climate and Nature Fund, which is due to reach 14 billion by 2030, rising in annual increments of 2 billion, using a portion of our windfall in corporate taxes.

Within this fund, according to finance minister, Michael McGrath, there is a climate and nature component worth over 3 billion, which will be available for projects between 2026-2030. The funds will be invested and managed by the National Treasury Management Agency and subject to State audit.

By any standards, this is a massive win for the Greens, who had watched much of the progressive environmental agenda developed during their first stint in government from 2007 to 2011 being quickly eviscerated. Recession-proofing this fund and placing it beyond the whims of the next minister or administration is seen as a way of firewalling major climate investment projects well into the next decade.

“This could be the turning point we’ve waited for”, commented ecologist Pádraic Fogarty. “This is serious money, over the longer term, to deliver real changes, for farmers and for communities”.

In introducing the government’s climate measures, it was heartening to see Minister McGrath frame them in their wider context. “In recent weeks and months, we have again seen the devastating impact of climate change on communities across the globe. Extreme heatwaves, droughts and wildfires have swept many parts of the world, and 2023 is now virtually certain to be the warmest year since records began in the mid-1800s”.

It is doubtful that many of the TDs who gathered to listen to the budget speech can have remembered heading into the Dáil in their shirt sleeves in mid-October as temperatures remained eerily high in recent days, well above 20ºC in a month where the average high temperature is just 13ºC. However pleasant, an October heatwave in Ireland is as ominous as it is unexpected.

Despite what the naysayers would have us believe, the green transition is in fact gathering pace in Ireland. Last month, fully electric cars were the single biggest seller in Ireland, with over 26% of sales, outselling either diesel or petrol models for the first time. This trend is only going in one direction, and the budget extended VRT relief on EVs up to the value of €50,000 until the end of 2025.

A few years ago, the idea of solar panels being commonplace on Irish homes would have sounded fanciful. However, a combination of high electricity prices and the recent removal of VAT on solar panels has seen their uptake more than double in 2023.

The budget also doubled to €400 the amount of tax-free income a homeowner can earn by selling surplus electricity back to the grid, as well as sensibly removing VAT on solar panels for schools. Apart from producing free electricity, school solar installations could present a valuable practical learning opportunity for children on the clean energy transition.

The government’s budget for energy transformation, including retrofitting, is now approaching half a billion euros, including €380 million for residential and community schemes operated by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).

This cost is fully funded by carbon tax revenues. Like them or not, carbon taxes really do work. By gradually raising the price on highly polluting products and using the revenues to make cleaner, greener alternatives affordable, they ease the pain of the energy transition while sending a clear longer term signal to the market that clean energy is the only game in town.

Environment and climate minister, Eamon Ryan describes Ireland’s home retrofitting plan as “one of the most ambitious in Europe” with around 40,000 home energy upgrades due to be completed this year. Assuming the momentum is maintained and even modestly increased, this could see half a million Irish homes receive a significant energy upgrade in the next 10 years or so.

Ireland’s big opportunity over the next decade is in rapidly scaling up our renewable energy production, including onshore and offshore wind as well as solar power.

Fossil fuel interests are fighting an intense rear-guard action to try to scupper this transition. They are dangling such nebulous prospects as ‘clean gas’ and HVO (hydrogenated vegetable oil) as alternatives to oil and gas.

In reality, these create more problems than solutions, and are little more than a distraction from the serious business of electrifying transport, home heating and much of our industrial sectors.

While it tends to grab fewer headlines, the scale of changes being rolled out mean that key bodies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the SEAI, NWPS and the Department of Environment and Climate need not just funding but also the skilled staff to ensure that political plans get implemented.

And, after years of chronic underfunding and political neglect, nature and heritage protection has come roaring back. Junior minister Malcolm Noonan secured €166 million for built and natural heritage, which included a €67.5 million budget for the NWPS, up 28% on last year, and more than quadrupled since the dark days of a decade ago.

For a country that trades internationally on its ‘green’ reputation, the political hostility to nature and biodiversity protection and willingness to coddle vested interests has long been a source of national shame. We can and must do better, much better.

Long after Budget 2024 is a footnote in the history books, it’s likely that the visionary and potentially game-changing Infrastructure, Climate and Nature Fund will be what it’s best remembered for.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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