Climate report is a dismal technocratic document

Fri, Feb 22, 2013, 00:00

National Economic and Social Council report fails to specify real targets or chart a clear course for the future

No one knows how fast we can end our dependence on fossil fuels, the National Economic and Social Council (Nesc) secretariat admits.

“Certainly, no one knows how to achieve decarbonisation at the rate of 5 to 6 per cent per year over the next 50 years that seems necessary to keep global warming to 2 degrees celsius,” it states in its recently completed report, Ireland and the Climate Change Challenge.

Given this admission, one might have expected the report to propose setting targets for each sector of the economy to reduce its carbon emissions over time. But there isn’t a mention of such sectoral targets, or any justification for not setting them.

This is a glaring omission in what Nesc director Dr Rory O’Donnell and his team would regard as an otherwise intellectually rigorous exercise.

But then, they weren’t asked to recommend sectoral targets by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan; he thought his draft legislation on climate change would be fine without them.

The Nesc secretariat report was prepared at the Minister’s request, as part of the preparations for his planned Climate Change Bill.

Hogan confidently expected to get Cabinet approval last week for the heads of his Bill, but that didn’t happen. Following an outcry from environmental groups who argued that any Bill without targets would be both “gutless” and “toothless” (in the words of An Taisce), the draft legislation is now being tweaked.

“We have seen in Ireland that ‘light touch’ and ‘aspirational’ policies have not worked”, said Prof John Sweeney, president of An Taisce and an expert on climate change. “This is true from planning to banking to protection of our natural resources. We know the disastrous consequences which flow from this approach.”

The Nesc report must have been music to Phil Hogan’s ears: “Actions taken to transform energy and reduce carbon emissions must be consistent with economic recovery, employment generation and fiscal correction in the coming years, and with increased Irish prosperity, wellbeing and social development in the decades ahead . . .

“Climate change policy and the transition to carbon neutrality can only work if they engage a wide range of actors – including local authorities, public agencies, firms, researchers, civil society organisations, communities and families – in exploring new possibilities and finding ways to learn from and generalise their innovations.”

‘Framework goals’

What it proposes is that there should be agreement on “broad framework goals [and] freedom for local and sectoral actors to advance these ends as they see fit”, with reporting and review requirements, and “revision of both framework goals and local plans, and of agreed metrics, in the light of comparison and experience”.

It would be a laissez faire regime. For example, the report allows for a massive increase in production under Food Harvest 2020 and talks about “a need to improve the understanding of agriculture and how it can contribute to the ambition of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions while increasing food output”.

This would involve using anaerobic digestion to treat slurry, more careful land use and a wider definition of forests and grassland as “carbon sinks”. But the authors acknowledge that “neither we nor the actors in the sector know how Irish agriculture and land use will achieve carbon neutrality” — probably because it can’t. Referring to the “many opportunities to reduce emissions that would also be profitable for farmers”, they say there is “a need to attend to the reasons why some farmers do not change practices, to understand local ways of farming and to consider the types of supports that would more effectively encourage change”.

Decarbonising the economy

The bulk of the task of decarbonising the economy “will have to be achieved by creation of low-carbon energy for electricity and transport”, the report says, adding: “It is technically and economically feasible for the power-generation sector to be entirely decarbonised by 2050” — with wind supplying more than 60 per cent.

Retrofitting housing to make it much more energy-efficient and widespread use of electric vehicles from 2020 onwards are seen as positive developments. Even so, the report concedes that “some purchase of carbon credits [estimated at €205 million] may be necessary” to ensure Ireland meets EU targets for 2020.

It also dumps on the idea of having an independent climate change commission to oversee the transition to a “carbon-neutral” economy, saying this could “militate against achieving real commitment, technical engagement and action within government”. Instead, it opts for a “government-led steering and oversight board”.

The Nesc team was astounded that the issue of “how much” reductions in emissions are needed dominates the question of “how to” achieve them.

“We need to reframe how the challenge is posed”, one source said. “Targets are really important, but they need to be worked up by agencies and other actors.”

Overall, Ireland and the Climate Change Challenge is a dismal technocratic document that fails to specify any real targets or chart a clear course for the future. Yet, having delivered their report, Dr O’Donnell and his team are not prepared to engage in public debate its contents, which is regrettable.


Frank McDonald is environment editor

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