The Green Party has sought a commitment of a 7 per cent reduction in carbon emissions annually as a precondition for entering talks on government formation with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. But is the target achievable without massively reducing the agriculture sector and placing impossible additional strain on the economy as it comes out of a coronavirus-induced coma?
The ‘doable’ question
Some of the country's best climate and energy experts, including policy analysts within environmental NGOs, say it will be immensely challenging, require great vigilance and regular adjustment, as well as a shift in mindset from the bigger political parties, but it is doable.
For a start, they point out that the Greens didn't come up with the 7 per cent figure; science did. The UN Environment Programme said in December if we want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees – the Paris Agreement goal – global average emissions reductions need to be 7.6 per cent a year. Failure to achieve that target by 2030 will cause irreversible impacts on the planet, increase frequency and ferocity of extreme weather events, and greatly shorten the odds on an existential threat to humanity coming to pass.
“A climate emissions reduction rate of 7 per cent is not ‘the Greens demand’ anymore than a Covid transmission reproduction rate of less than one is ‘a Fine Gael demand’. They are both based on best available science and the advice of the relevant international organisation,” says Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth.
Those in the “doable” camp believe that all parties must now work out what has to be done, going beyond those who might form the next government, to ensure urgency and scale of the transformation required.
Covid-19 aside, Ireland has two distinct problems. First, years of inaction on climate change and a "let's not ruffle feathers" policy means today's targets have become particularly challenging.
Second, agriculture (which accounts for a third of emissions) must be addressed. If not, harsher cuts will be necessary elsewhere. This requires buy-in to a new way of evaluating impact, as demanded by farmers, says Stop Climate Chaos policy analyst Sadhbh O’Neill.
Doing the maths differently
Those who accuse the Green Party of impractical thinking point to the Government’s current climate plan. It proposes cutting emissions by 3.5 per cent a year through a range of long-fingered measures, including getting one million electric vehicles on the road by 2030; retrofitting 500,000 homes; reaching a target of 70 per cent renewables feeding into the power grid, and increasing carbon tax to €80 a tonne. If these can’t be delivered, or at least haven’t been to date, the critics say, how can the Greens realistically set a more ambitious target?
But there are different ways of achieving the 7 per cent goal, agricultural reforms aside. Looking at it in terms of permitted carbon pollution (known as a carbon budget) over the next decade, the target is not so impracticable. It would mean reducing overall CO2 emissions from 40 million tonnes per annum by 19.4 million tonnes. Irish Wind Energy Association chief executive Dr David Connolly has developed "a high-level road map for 7 per cent savings to 2030" showing the impact of each measure across each sector.
“Each of these can be achieved in 10 years if climate action is treated with urgency,” he tweeted.
It is easy to be confused by what a 7 per cent reduction each year actually means for Ireland’s emissions, Coghlan notes. “It’s not seven percentage points each year (which would be 35 per cent over five years), it’s a 7 per cent reduction compared to the previous year. So the actual drop required gets smaller each year as the outstanding balance reduces – it’s like the opposite of compound interest.”
Over five years, emissions would be 19 per cent lower than they would have been if we hadn't reduced emissions at all and, critically, it's just 20 per cent more savings than currently planned up to 2030. His analysis is outlined in a blogpost
Are changes to agriculture doable?
In term of changes to the agriculture sector, it all hinges here on whether you include methane or not, O'Neill says. In New Zealand (with a similar farming profile to Ireland) the model works with separate targets.
“Methane has a much greater warming effect than CO2 per unit of emissions released but its atmospheric lifetime is much shorter. It is particularly problematic for Ireland given the predominance of agricultural methane and nitrous oxide [greenhouse gases] in Ireland’s emissions profile,” O’Neill says.
“A separate reduction target for methane could be a good idea. However, it would need to be legally binding and deliver steady reductions in methane and nitrous oxide emissions from the agricultural sector.”
What to do with methane is not being discussed enough, she believes. The Climate Change Advisory Council has accepted the merits of separate targets but did not have the resources to determine how it could be done in the Irish context.
The delivery mechanism
Coghlan says 7 per cent is a measure of scale not a precise annual trajectory. “Our targets will actually be managed in the form of five-year carbon budgets.”
Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party have already agreed to introduce a revised Climate Act within the first 100 days of government, with robust governance and Dáil powers to set carbon budgets.
No one is actually arguing for, or expecting, emissions to fall by precisely 7 per cent year after year. The figure is a measure of the scale of the immediate emissions cuts needed to get on course to achieve Paris targets.
“In practice, we will manage our emissions reductions by adopting five-year carbon budgets,” says Coghlan. A carbon budget is simply a number indicating the maximum amount of pollution we can afford to emit over a given period, in the same way a financial budget is a number indicating the maximum amount of money you can afford to spend over a given period – it has nothing to do with carbon taxes.
“You can debate about numbers and timing”, but the carbon budget approach and a robust decarbonisation in agriculture makes 7 per cent “quite achievable”, O’Neill concludes.
The tricky politics
In reality, Ireland has already signed up to the 7 per cent target so what’s the fuss? There is now the complicating factor of Covid-19 placing colossal pressure on the public purse for years to come.
In its last report before the Dáil was dissolved, the Oireachtas Climate Action Committee made a submission to Government endorsing a 7 per cent emission reduction rate for the coming decade. Representatives of all parties on the committee, including Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, backed the figure.
During the election campaign five party leaders (Sinn Féin, Labour, Greens, Social Democrats, Solidarity-People Before Profit) signed the One Future campaign pledge for "at least 8 per cent" reductions. The Government has repeatedly backed the European Green Deal entailing a cut of 50-55 per cent by 2030 – which is calculated differently but in the same territory.
So it’s all down to what’s achievable in a new economic reality. The bigger parties agreeing to not pursue the building of liquid natural gas infrastructure is seen as strong indication of higher intent and has gone down well with climate activists.
“It’s not for us to say whether any particular party should or shouldn’t go into government,” Coghlan says. “Now we need each party to do everything in its power to ensure that as many of those policies as possible are included in the programme for government and then implemented as soon as possible, so emissions are cut as fast and as fairly as possible.”
What to do is already laid out and broadly accepted on an all-party basis. The governance structure needs to be built in. “The choice is not between purity and perfection, it is between action and inaction. We simply cannot afford to wait another five years to ramp up climate action. Every day counts now. Every tonne of emissions counts,” Coughlan adds.
Climate NGOs insist they are non-party-political but it’s clear many within their ranks believe the Greens should go into government. Some see it as a rare opportunity to affect change while others fear the alternative, arguing that if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are allowed to do their own thing and, for example, join with rural TDs, climate ambition would be discernibly weaker.