Eamon Ryan interview: ‘Climate action is where the jobs are going to come’

‘This turning point ... is the equivalent of that paper Whitaker wrote 60 years ago’

The industrial policies pursued by Seán Lemass and TK Whitaker in the late 1950s and early 1960s changed Ireland to its core. Green Party leader and Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan believes global warming will do the same.

The driving force, says the Minister, will be the Climate Action (Amendment) Bill which lays down rules that will govern actions in the years to come.

“This turning point moment – it’s not just the Bill; it’s the work that has been going on for two to three years – is the equivalent of that paper Whitaker wrote 60 years ago,” Ryan told The Irish Times.

In time, a five-yearly carbon budget could become as much of a feature of the political and media debate as the minister for finance’s traditional annual budget, and, perhaps, with even more effect on the daily lives of those listening to it.


The Bill, the heads of which have been cleared by Cabinet, though not without dissenting words, will provide the governance for the road ahead. He says: “It says, ‘we are going to do this. This is the way we will organise, this is how we do it’.”

The legislation is the outcome of a process over several years led by different people, Ryan stresses, including the broad political support that emerged through last year’s all-party climate action committee report.

The climate action plan led by Richard Bruton before he left office emerged from that, says Ryan. "It doesn't belong to any one party. If it belonged to any one party, you wouldn't have that confidence of stability for the next 20 years in what we're doing. It has to be shared."

The standout element, according to Ryan, is political agreement on ambition behind the Bill. “That doesn’t sound dramatic, but look at previous instances when Ireland made radical changes, such as the Lemass-Whitaker strategy,” he says.

Then, Ireland began the journey from a closed to an open economy accepted across the political system, supported by political certainty and “stability in decision making for 20 years, which enabled Ireland to join the EU, invest in education and create tax-free zones in Shannon and so on. That allowed us to make the changes that transformed the economy.”

Governance is difficult to explain, he admits. “But if you don’t get that right, you will be chasing your tail all the time; you won’t be able to make progress.”

Ireland under international commitments which the State has already signed up to is required to achieve an average 7 per cent cut in emissions every year up to 2030, if we are to become 100 per cent carbon neutral by 2050.

Critically, Ireland is in tune with Europe, matching Ursula von der Leyen's request for increased ambition and at least a 55 per cent emissions cut by 2030, a target likely to be adopted by the European Council shortly.

This is because Ireland is now in a position to switch off coal and to end peat extraction – “a big chunk of change which allows us to be more ambitious than the rest of Europe”. But, Ryan emphasises, it will need a justice transition focus and support for Bord na Móna workers.

“We are going in this direction and the Government is behind it, and [the Bill] is giving certainty”, he says, pointing to this week’s announcement by Bord na Móna that it is preparing to invest €1.6 billion in climate action projects.

“Other companies, State agencies will row in, [are] running with this rather than resisting it. It signals we can do this and it will be good for us, rather than asking how can we opt out,” says Ryan.

Ireland is getting its timings right, he notes, as Europe is saying, “folks, this is where the money is”, with 37 per cent of the EU Covid recovery fund going on climate. Increased ambition has to be fully reflected in the National Energy and Climate Plan.

Brussels will pronounce judgment on an early version in coming weeks. It will be updated early next year and ultimately feed into the EU's scaled-up ambition spelt out at UN climate talks (COP26) in Glasgow.

A strengthened climate advisory council will recommend the legally-binding emissions limits that are to apply in each five-yearly carbon budget, which will be reviewed subsequently by the Oireachtas climate committee and a public consultation too.

The advisory council reviews progress and adjusts limits in line with Ireland’s emissions targets and Paris Agreement obligations – the mechanism will have a major impact on State spending into the 2030s.

The change will be far reaching and unprecedented, he agrees. “This comes not because we’re in Government. Yes, it is driving us . . . because it’s what’s needed. This is where the new economy is going, where the jobs are going to come. It’s radical change; change for the better.”

Ryan believes Irish people are up for it. “The Citizen’s Assembly was not an aberration,” he says. Its recommendations retain widespread backing. While delivering his annual climate statement recently, there was “no voice of climate denial” in the Dáil chamber.

“It won’t be easy and will require hard political decisions – no decision is not an option anymore,” he says. And the biggest challenges will be in transport and agriculture.

Agricultural crux

The latter proved to be one of most trying issues in negotiations to form a Government, notably methane arising from farming. “Methane was probably the most contested, really difficult key turning moment, to my mind, in the programme for government negotiations. Because we said, we have to recognise that methane is a greenhouse gas, a really virulent one and which is rising dramatically at the moment, which threatens our security – you can’t opt out of counting biogenic methane.”

The “it’s short-lived” argument does not hold up because it converts to CO2 in the atmosphere, he says, but there is a case for counting it differently as it’s in food systems and a zero target is not possible. Methane, though, can be stored in rewetted bogs.

The current system of agricultural production is not serving Irish family farms well, he adds; meaningful dialogue is needed to ensure farmers are properly rewarded, especially for minding the environment.

The environmental movement and farmers are much closer to understanding each other than others might think

He hopes a study led by Tom Arnold "replacing/updating" the sector's Food Wise 2025 strategic plan will endorse that position, and say, "do you know what, the Greens are right. The future of agriculture cannot just be about never-ending expansion" with deterioration in water quality and biodiversity and increasing emissions.

Instead it’s about backing the programme for government, accepting the need for better land use in future. If the review comes to a complementary position indicating “this is the way the world is going, this is way Origin Green is going to go”, he says it will help him persuade farmers of its merits.

It’s not a finger-waving exercise, he adds. It’s about sitting down with farmers and acknowledging their central role. “The environmental movement and farmers are much closer to understanding each other than others might think.”

From his perspective, a national land use plan is critical. Its first objective will be rural development, ensuring young people can thrive in rural Ireland, encourage food production and more suitable forestry, help the storage of carbon and cut pollution while improving water quality.

Not taking this course, he argues, means that Ireland will find it impossible to meet its international obligations.

Transport trouble

The course for renewable energy, deep-retrofitting 500,000 houses and rolling out one million electric vehicles is challenging, but clear. Public transport changes, though, take years; the Metro in Dublin and Dart extensions cannot be delivered quickly.

Better planning, including housing close to public transport, “will bring life back to the centre” of towns and cities. The “15-minute city” is realisable based around rail, cycling and walking, he believes.

The whole idea that we're going to build big motorways into Dublin, to get commuters in, it's so out of date now

The Greens are settling into Government, their leader insists. "It's tough. We are forever going into government in tough times." But the words of leading European green Philippe Lamberts is always prominent in his thoughts: "Are you just in politics to go out in fair weather? Are you not willing to go out in a storm?" He adds: "You gotta be willing to go out in a storm."

The Green Party held up well, he believes, in the way it conducted its internal debate before it entered government, with a “respectful” online debate. “That was its strength and it will stand to us.” The leadership contest with Catherine Martin was handled similarly, he says.

The Covid storm may appear “all bad”, but he does not think it will derail necessary investment in decarbonisation. There is opportunity as the status quo doesn’t hold. This is particularly the case on “active travel”, he says.

Remote working “is revolutionary” and lockdown enabled people to reconnect with their local communities. This has changed the way people look at future transport options. “The whole idea that we’re going to build big motorways into Dublin, to get commuters in, it’s so out of date now,” adds Ryan.

On relations with Coalition partners, he says differences of opinion are surfacing but being worked through collectively. “It has steadied down.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times