It has taken time for climate change to creep back on to the political agenda. During the recession, understandably, it plummeted as a priority issue for voters, with a huge fall-off in media coverage. In 2009, there were almost 3,000 articles in Irish media about climate change; in 2012 there were well below 1,000.
Last December, the UN climate change conference, COP 21, produced the Paris agreement, a breakthrough document that commits nearly 200 states to keep global temperature increase “well below” 2 degrees, and to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5 degrees, compared to pre-industrial levels.
The achievement was beyond the expectations of many detractors. There were also important commitments to limit greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible and to put $100 billion a year into climate finance.
Arising from all that, it is no surprise all the political parties contesting the general election have included climate change policies in their manifestos, all committing to the targets set out by the Paris agreement.
However, there are large variations in terms of detail and commitments, as well as get-out clauses for particular sectors or interest groups. For example, some parties look for exemptions for the likes of agriculture, oil-burning power generators, peat-extraction and wind-power.
The spread of wind energy had met resistance in local communities because of the intrusive nature of some wind farms and this local opposition has percolated into manifestos.
Dr Cara Augustenborg, a lecturer in climate change and the environment at the UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science, has done a comprehensive analysis of the manifestos to compare their policies. A former member of the Green Party, she declares that interest up-front.
She found limitations in all the manifestos, including that of her former party. But as this is its raison d’être, it is unsurprising that the Green Party emerges as strongest in her analysis. It is rated number one followed (in descending order) by Labour; Social Democrats; Fianna Fáil; Fine Gael; Renua; Sinn Féin; and People Before Profit. The latter four have big omissions or are inherently weak or soft on climate change, in her view.
It refers to climate change in its manifesto more than any other party and there is a section devoted to it, including some good measures on biomass. Surprisingly, there is no concrete target for electric vehicles, in sharp contrast to the 2011 manifesto which included ambitious targets.
There are no firm commitments in terms of reductions and all initiatives mentioned have to be “balanced” against other interests, including rural economy and expansion of agricultural produce. Whitegate refinery is to stay open. Judgment on fracking is withheld. There is no reference to solar energy. Wind energy must be balanced against the concerns of local communities. Greenways and existing public transport plans – new Luas lines, bicycle schemes and so on – are included. There is a commitment to add 6,000 hectares of forestry over 2½ years.
This is one of the better manifestos, according to Dr Augustenborg. It includes a few imaginative ideas, including carbon-neutral cities within 20 years.
There are strong ambitions for community ownership of projects, based on the White Paper on energy, steered by Minister for Energy and Natural Resources Alex White, but there are no great specifics on how it will be achieved. The party is against fracking, will keep Whitegate open and will replace coal-burning Moneypoint with low-carbon energy by 2025. The party puts a big emphasis on compressed natural gas as an interim alternative to petrol/diesel.
The party has a surprisingly good manifesto, says Dr Augustenborg. Its big initiative is a specific department of climate change, incorporating energy, transport and flood defences. The party is strong on electric vehicles with four specific incentives. There is strong resistance to wind energy.
The party’s commitments to climate change are a little sketchy compared to other big parties. It does not have a comprehensive transport policy, nor does it have a full energy policy. Peat is only mentioned in the context of retaining turbary rights. The party opposes fracking. There are references to including energy efficiency in housing. The overall commitment to climate change is disappointing, says Dr Augustenborg.
Climate and natural resources is one of its 19 manifesto policies. It opposes wind energy, favouring solar and tidal energy (even though the latter is at an early stage of development). It supports biomass and lays strong emphasis on air quality. It opposes fracking and supports new road building.
One of the party’s TDs, Catherine Murphy, has been a vocal proponent of climate change legislation and the manifesto reflects this view. The party is also strong on electric vehicles, public transport, housing and elimination of peat burning. There are no specific targets, however, and no detailed plans on solar energy.
People Before Profit
It produced a very slim manifesto in general. The party has opposed fracking and it supports insulation programmes and the use of Coillte land for energy projects. There are no other commitments on climate change.
It calls for 2030 binding targets and 80 per cent emission reduction by 2050. Specific actions are laid out for agriculture, forestry, energy and transport. It does not agree with full expansion of the national herd under Food Wise 2025, the only party to explicitly state such a view. Surprisingly, there are scant references to biomass policy.
Dr Cara Augustenborg's Election 2016 Climate Manifesto Analysis can be accessed at caraaugustenborg.com