Irish Times Op-ed, Dec 22nd, 2022.
With thanks to the various colleagues who contributed ideas for this column, which I could only capture maybe 5 percent in these words
Christmas is a time of hope and renewal during the darkest days of winter. As we reflect on the past year that brought great hardship from inflation, a war in Europe, a destabilising climate and continued collapse of the natural world, we desperately need reasons for hope: the deeply unsustainable energy, food and transport systems – which are at the root of these interlinking crises – must be transformed.
The Government’s latest Climate Action Plan – a roadmap of actions published by Government this week to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions – was published on Wednesday. It is an important and critical step in delivering that transformation. It is a vision for an Ireland that will be changed for the better, not just for the climate, but for people’s quality of life, for nature and for a resilient economy.
But in the words of Greta Thunberg, hope is something we must earn though action.
Delivering this vision will take a relentless focus and unprecedented effort, leadership, and society-wide buy-in and commitment.
There is every reason to be cynical. Ireland’s record of missed targets doesn’t inspire confidence. Greenhouse gas emissions are still rising in some sectors, and the Climate Change Advisory Council has pointed out that the plan does not deliver all the emissions savings required under the climate law between now and 2030. Unless the next plan addresses that gap, and significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are seen in 2023, the carbon budget programme will be on life support.
The scale and speed of many mitigation measures, from offshore wind to home retrofits, are at the limit of what can credibly be delivered. The Government will have to look to emergency measures, as they did during the Covid-19 pandemic, and as they did in the power sector in the face of blackouts.
The overriding priority is to move from planning to action and implementation. Unfortunately, many of the actions identified in the plan are to make yet more plans, in some cases delaying action by years. For example, a strategy for rolling out a high-powered electric vehicle charging network is still to be developed during 2023, with roll-out planned from 2024, unnecessarily delaying the uptake of electric vehicles.
At the same time, this Climate Action Plan signifies a very significant step-up in effort from which I personally have taken a lot of hope. As the first statutory plan under the Climate Act, all public institutions and local authorities are required under law to further its objectives, giving it real teeth. This should help overcome one of the main barriers to climate action: inertia from public bodies, who have lacked the necessary mandate, skills, and resourcing to deliver transformative change.
The transport chapter in particular signals a big shift away from a car-centric transport system that will greatly improve quality of life and the urban realm. For example, a target to replace 30 per cent of “school-run” car trips with sustainable modes – schoolbuses and active travel – will take away the daily grind for parents, allowing many to go without a costly second car, reduce congestion and air pollution around schools, and increase children’s physical activity, with the health benefits this brings.
Accelerating home retrofits, especially for those on lower incomes, will reduce energy bills and improve the often-hazardous air quality in villages, towns and cities as people turn to burning solid fuels to stay warm. Incredibly, this causes around 10 times more premature deaths than from road accidents each year.
And accelerating solar energy generation to 5GW by 2025 will reduce the country’s dependence on imported and costly fossil fuels.
These are just three of the many measures in the plan that should be taken irrespective of climate action.
But the status quo is powerful. Overcoming the inertia from deeply entrenched habits, infrastructure and powerful vested interests will not be easy. Reorienting land use will be particularly contested, as car drivers will lose near-universal access to city centres and free parking, and some dairy and beef production will need to shift to lower carbon-intensity farming. The plan shies away from being making this explicit, unfortunately, in the same way that it has signalled a shift away from a car-centric transport system. But it is clear that dairy expansion must cease and probably be reversed to remain within the sectoral carbon ceilings.
Fundamentally, a cultural shift is necessary to achieve this plan, in the same way it’s no longer acceptable to smoke in workplaces, to drink and drive, or to drive a child without a car seat. These changes came about by strong regulation and public education, driven by the aim to protect vulnerable people. Similarly, I believe that as the consequences of climate change become hideously clear, the strong social solidarity we are lucky to have in Ireland will be channelled towards climate action.
Now that is something to be hopeful for.