Citizens’ Assembly ideas confront worst of global warming

Climate change is a pressing moral issue and action is needed for future’s benefit

Chair of the Citizen’s Assembly,  the Honourable Ms Mary Laffoy: the 13 proposed measures that emerged are rooted in pragmatism vital for what’s immediately facing Ireland and the world. Photograph: Tom Honan.

Chair of the Citizen’s Assembly, the Honourable Ms Mary Laffoy: the 13 proposed measures that emerged are rooted in pragmatism vital for what’s immediately facing Ireland and the world. Photograph: Tom Honan.

 

The recommendations made by the Citizens’ Assembly have the potential to achieve the kind of societal transformation necessary for Ireland to play its part in countering the worst affects of global warming caused by humans spewing out CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Its brief – to identify how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change – may in time become reality. But the right decisions and sustained actions that win the broad support have to come first.

During the course of two weekends, it was clear – even for those observing via online live streams – assembly members were remarkably engaged on the topic, having been brought up to speed quickly on the science of climate change.

But there were indications, too, of frustration about the response to date by the various arms of Government and State agencies in countering already present climate-change threats. They identified gaps in public policy and the absence of investment from Government on the kind of strong initiatives adopted elsewhere aimed at achieving substantial behavioural change.

This may explain why the 13 proposed measures that emerged are rooted in the kind of pragmatism that is vital given what’s immediately facing Ireland and the world, and the obvious failures up to now. In addition, they reinforced them with tight timelines and a mechanism for regular independent assessment of progress. The introduction of such a mechanism with targets was removed from climate legislation by the government before it was passed in 2015.

Emphatic signal

Politicians have been given an emphatic signal that hard decisions should be taken now, if there is any chance that we make a meaningful contribution to the global effort to curtail temperature rise to 2 degrees this century.

The testing of politicians’ mettle will however come quickly, notably in the next budget. The key agent of behavioural change should be a robust, widely applied carbon tax, counter-balanced by rewards for those who pursue the route to decarbonisation. That was the advice of many experts who briefed the 99 members, though Prof John Fitzgerald of the Government’s Climate Change Advisory Council outlined how resolve on this key battleground could quickly be defused by easier short-termism in the shape of other inevitable political distractions and limited resources. Unless cross-party agreement is agreed in advance, he predicted, it just won’t happen. A key platform for change would be sunk within a year in spite of an unprecedented mandate for action.

But it’s as if the assembly anticipated how the politicians might respond. So on top of indicating a willingness to pay higher taxes on carbon-intensive activities, it suggests that any increase in revenue would be spent on measures that directly aid the transition to a low-carbon and climate-resilient Ireland. These would include, for example, making solar panels more cheaply and easily available; retrofitting homes and businesses, providing flood defences, and developing infrastructure for electric vehicles. The poorest households must not be burdened unfairly but the tax should build year-on-year.

Renewable energy

The members advocate a balanced approach of rewarding farmers for cuts in emissions and pollution, with the carrot of supports and incentives for smarter farming and use of renewable energy.

They were impressed by the analysis of Prof Alan Matthews of TCD who outlined how the right kind of production may be supported, and farming made more profitable and in some scenarios expanded backed by clear national policy objectives. Appropriate land use policies and flexibility on sequestering carbon – the use of carbon sinks through forestry, for example – are essential.

Buying carbon credits to make up for missing 2020 targets is a mug’s game – it will make even more demanding 2030 targets harder to achieve

Farmers have begun the move to smarter farming; they know more than most how to read market signals. Already, we have become the most carbon-efficient country in dairying. But a delicately balanced strategy has yet to emerge that also reconciles hugely ambitious targets to expand production up to 2025. Vague commitments on moving agriculture to “carbon neutrality” are not sufficient.

The assembly has recommended the dominance of the car and investment in roads give way to sustainable public transport, cyclists and walkers in our cities. It calls for the ending of peat-fired power generation in a much tighter timeframe.

Actioning such big measures requires political bravery combined with long-term vision rare in the Irish context, but which is evident among leader cities around the world. We have a long way to go. Daily bicycle journeys across the city of Copenhagen exceeded car journeys in 2016 – is such a trend possible in Dublin within 10 years?

As Fitzgerald suggested, climate change has become the most pressing moral issue; urgent action is required for benefits which may not be immediate.

If ethical considerations are not sufficiently motivating, financial ones should be. Significant costs have to be taken on quickly to avoid higher costs in future. Likewise, buying carbon credits to make up for missing 2020 targets for reducing carbon emissions is a mug’s game – it will make even more demanding 2030 targets harder to achieve, and more costly again.

Societal transformation

Minister for Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten welcomed the Assembly’s recommendations wholeheartedly, acknowledging “as a nation we are engaged and ready to move-on from the model [of existence] we inherited from the Industrial Revolution”. Discussions and 1,200 submissions from the public “will make a pivotal contribution to the societal transformation that is required”, he predicted. He identified what’s needed now: “It requires resources, sustained policy change and engagement with wider society. People cannot be commanded, they must be consulted.”

Implementation now becomes of paramount importance, and much rests on his shoulders. He has to be the driver of the National Mitigation Plan ie in reducing carbon emissions, and of the National Adaptation Framework ie in prepare for the unavoidable consequences of climate change and associated economic, environmental and social costs including those arising from extreme weather.

He has to achieve the buy-in of every Government department, State agency and local authority. He has to get the balance right on the new Renewable Electricity Support Scheme and Renewable Heat Incentive and allow consumers, businesses and communities avail of the considerable benefits of electricity “micro-generation”. There will be institutional resistance to be overcome, especially among bigger players.

Many will contend that even if all the assembly’s recommendations were adopted, it would merely amount to Ireland moving to a mid-table position in the EU league. But given our current standing, one of just four EU member states set to miss 2020 emission reduction targets, it would be a worthy first play in restoring Ireland’s environmental reputation.

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