Ireland needs to be ambitious on climate change

Fri, Mar 1, 2013, 00:00

Opinion:The Irish Times Environment Editor Frank McDonald tells readers that the National Economic and Social Council secretariat’s report, Ireland and the Climate Change Challenge: Connecting ‘How Much’ with ‘How To’, is a “dismal technocratic document” that advocates a “laissez faire regime” (Opinion Analysis, February 22nd).

In fact, we argue that the Government should commit to a most ambitious target: to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. We identify the critical role of regulation, sectoral plans, intelligent use of targets and indicators, real political commitment across government, strong leadership and an allocation of resources that reflects these new priorities.

But these clarifications will never satisfy those climate change advocates who believe that most people will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions unless forced to and that high authorities independent of politics, the economy and the people can at international and national level apply such force effectively.

If only it were that simple. We need a total transformation of the energy and transport systems underpinning global economic activity.

Behavioural changes

Success depends on profound behavioural changes in consumption, travel and heating. The potential benefits are huge, but the costs are also arguably high and therefore divisive. How high? We can’t say because nobody yet knows how to reduce emissions at 5 per cent per year over many decades, which is necessary to keep global warming under 2 degrees.

Internationally, the dominant approach to climate change is the search for a binding global agreement on emissions-reduction targets and timetables. This has had little success. Given the great uncertainty about the cost of reductions, many countries will commit only to targets they are sure to achieve by applying current knowledge.

Nationally, despite real progress on key fronts, the issue became for the same reason highly divisive. These problems are forcing us and others to think critically about this policy challenge.

It is now necessary to balance the dominant diplomatic and policy emphasis on “how much” emissions reduction to target with greater focus on “how to” reduce emissions. Our report asks how do we create a positive, mutually reinforcing dynamic between learning how to reduce emissions and increasing ambition, targets and action on how much?

Our research reveals that remarkable learning on how to reduce emissions is taking place in Irish businesses, public bodies and community groups. Among the many innovations are the work of Glanbia, Bord Bia and Teagasc helping farmers to increase efficiency and reduce emissions; and the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and local authorities’ work on community energy projects.

To harness and extend this innovation, the Government needs to create and lead a new public body to assist it in formulating a national strategy, sectoral plans and targets. It needs to push relevant departments, agencies, firms and sectors to set and achieve ever-greater targets for decarbonisation. It must establish teams to crack those carbon-reduction possibilities that have eluded Ireland to date, such as using waste to generate electricity.

An independent authority of the kind often advocated could wag its finger at government but do little else. The institution we propose would link frontline problem-solving with high-level review and targetsetting. Ireland’s best agencies, such as IDA Ireland, have the kind of mandate and organisation that is relevant.

To the rest of Frank McDonald’s accusations, we plead “guilty as charged”.

Yes, climate change policy will not gain traction unless it meshes with the hunger for economic recovery and employment.

Yes, policy will not work unless it engages the interest and ingenuity of public agencies, firms, local authorities, researchers, civil society organisations, communities and families in exploring new possibilities and learning from their innovations.

Yes, agricultural emissions are a problem we can address only if we push the science and probe farming practices.

It is revealing that these ideas – facts, really – that make complete sense to most of the organisations we have worked with should provoke the derision of the Irish Times Environment Editor. Our report explains why we must take these facts seriously.

Ireland can make a real contribution by committing to and pursuing the target of carbon neutrality; by arguing for more effective international approaches; by enriching the EU’s climate strategies; and by creating national institutions that are suited to the way much progress on climate change really happens.

is director of the National Economic and Social Council. Its report on climate change is available at environ.ieand nesc.ie


Dr RORY O'DONNELL

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