Sinn Féin climate policy remains hazy as debate on costs heats up

Party majors on climate justice and just transition to exclusion of almost everything else

Sinn Féin’s policies on climate change could be summed up as follows: big on justice, hazy on transition.

The party, in its documents and public pronouncements, majors on the twin concepts of climate justice and just transition to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Sinn Féin’s manifesto for the 2020 general election is a good example: “Without a Government policy that is framed by climate justice and a just transition, the leadership and direction of climate change will become the plaything of bankers and corporate investors. They will be concerned with only one thing – how to make a buck out of the crisis. That is what they do and it is killing the planet.

“We cannot allow corporate interests to push false solutions and dump the cost of climate action on to the shoulders of ordinary communities. Sinn Féin is committed to climate justice and a just transition for Ireland, north and south.”


It is clear from this and more recent statements on the climate crisis what Sinn Féin is against. But what exactly is the party for, when it comes to supporting policies that will significantly reduce Ireland’s carbon emissions?

And, more pertinently, how does Sinn Féin propose to pay for just transition?

Renewed focus came on these questions in the week leading up to Cop26 in Glasgow. The trigger was a Sinn Féin Private Members’ Bill on wind turbines that happened to be chosen for debate on that very week. The Bill was drafted back in 2016 amid local opposition in the midlands to wind farms.

The proposed legislation was quickly withdrawn from the Dáil schedule by party whip Pádraig Mac Lochlainn for obvious reasons. It proposed a set-back for turbines (the distance from the nearest house) equal to 10 times their height. It also all but banned the export of energy from turbines.

The Bill would have severely restricted the further development of on-land wind power in Ireland. Mac Lochlainn accepted the Bill was out of date and needed to be updated.“The only place you could have put up wind turbines in Ireland under that Bill would have been Ballycroy national park in Mayo,” said a TD from another party, exaggerating only slightly.

Emissions cuts

An accusation that Sinn Féin was jumping on populist bandwagons was hardly assuaged by the responses given by party leader Mary Lou McDonald about Cop 26 on two RTÉ programmes around the same time which placed her closer to gilets jaunes than to green warrior.

When asked, she refused to commit Sinn Féin to a specific figure for emissions cuts in agriculture. She also said the State should refuse to sign the Mercosur trade deal with South American countries instead of taking issue with Irish farmers about the size of the national herd. She repeated her party’s opposition to carbon tax, and said she also supported a temporary scrapping of VAT on energy bills.

The only tangible measure to reduce, or contain, emissions she referenced was her call for a moratorium on the building of more data centres.

McDonald is usually adept at forcing Taoiseach Micheál Martin on to his back foot in the Dáil but he wheeled the scrum a few days later when she demanded the removal of VAT of fossil fuels.

“It’s about time you got off the fence,” Martin told McDonald. “You’re having an each-way bet, every week, every month in this House, for the last number of years on the issue.”

For most of the past five years, Sinn Féin has focused on two key policy areas: housing and health. On each it has published extensive policy documents. In contrast, its climate-change policies are lacking in detail and fragmented.

A good example is the section on climate change in its alternative budget this year. Additional spending for climate action is €420 million, which seems respectable on the face of it. But when you take a closer look, it emerges that €107 million of that is an increase in the payment for suckler beef animals to €300 per cow/calf pair.

It is a surprise to see that being described as a climate-change measure. To some, it is in fact the opposite of climate action. In an industry where there are no caps on cattle numbers, increasing the subsidy in the past has increased the herd size and resulted in a consequent increase in emissions.

Sinn Féin's agriculture spokesman Matt Carthy says the measure is to support family farms rather than less sustainable, commercial beef farms. But, as a climate-change policy, that seems like choosing the least bad solution. In itself, it is highly unlikely that such a powerful incentive to invest in suckler herds will lead to a meaningful reduction in emissions, if at all.

Climate action could be the party’s Achilles heel in the run-up to the next election. It is hard to pin down Sinn Féin on where exactly where it stands, especially on how to finance the transition if it continues to oppose increases in carbon tax.

The party’s spokesman on the issue is Darren O’Rourke, a TD for Meath East and a former health policy adviser to the party. He reiterates Sinn Féin’s support for reducing emissions by 51 per cent by 2030, and for the principle of five-year carbon budgets.

In fact, O’Rourke makes it clear that Sinn Féin does not differ greatly from the Government’s 2030 policies of having a million electric vehicles on the road, to retrofit 500,000 homes to B2 standards, and to reduce agriculture emissions – albeit by an unstated percentage. The party agrees with the 2:1 ratio for public transport over roads but not uniformly, according to a 2019 paper.

‘Low-hanging fruit’

O'Rourke says there is "low-hanging fruit" the Government has failed to grasp. He cites wind power, solar power and micro-generation as three examples. He also argues that he and Senator Lynn Boylan have a "full body of work" in terms of being constructive in Opposition.

He cites their contributions during the line-by-line consideration of climate legislation at committee, including the many detailed amendments they drafted. When asked if the party lacks a comprehensive and coherent climate policy, he says Sinn Féin is proposing a range of measures for housing, transport and energy, while also supporting many of the Government measures.

“The question we are trying to answer is how do you orient the State intervention to the places where it is most needed.”

The party is not totally opposed to carbon taxes, only when “people do not have alternatives” says O’Rourke. “It’s all about time and context.”

Electorally, though, it would be very difficult for Sinn Féin to re-embrace carbon taxes without experiencing a backlash. Climate change is a costly item. The Climate Action Plan has a predicted cost of €125 billion. When it emerged that the bill for retrofitting 500,000 homes was put at €28 billion, a number of quantity surveyors said that was an underestimate. Most of the money will be private but the State will be expected to stump up some of the cash.

In 2019, Sinn Féin questioned in a policy paper if there was mass demand for retrofitting houses. It said deep retrofit could “only be viewed as a long-term measure with potential for tiny incremental gains over 30 to 40 years. In reality, the gains from current retrofit models over the next decade will be marginal and the best opportunity for change arises from new builds”.

Carbon tax revenue is expected to hit about €1 billion per annum by 2030. Asked where alternative funding might be raised, O’Rourke agrees it will be challenge. He refers to green bonds, to changes in European Union fiscal rules on borrowing and to levies on fossil-fuel companies – but there is the danger, he accepts, those charges will be passed on to customers. “Funding it is a huge challenge for all of us, for all parties,” he says.