The rubber is about to meet the road. Until now Ireland’s commitment to greenhouse gas reduction has been all about hard-to-grasp figures. For example, Ireland has an allowance of 495 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent until 2030; go figure.
This week was when politicians began to really discover what all this will actually mean, and how it will change our lives.
The Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Climate Change met three times to discuss the two five-year carbon budgets proposed by the Climate Change Advisory Council. The council has recommended annual reductions of 4.8 per cent in emissions between 2021 and 2025 (that’s 24 per cent overall) and annual reductions of 8.3 per cent between 2026 and 2030 (that 41.5 per cent overall).
The Oireachtas must approve the CCAC recommendation, particularly its conclusion that reductions should be heavily back loaded until the second half of the decade.
What emerged at the committee hearings, chaired by Green Party TD Brian Leddin, was sobering. Politicians had to take a bite of a reality sandwich, and the public will have to do so in time.
The realities spelt out in the committee rooms were stark. A number of independent scientists argued that even the CCAC recommendations will not bring Ireland anywhere close enough to achieve the Paris Accord target of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Prof Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester reminded the committee that Taoiseach Micheál Martin told COP 26 in Glasgow that as political leaders “it is our responsibility to put the necessary policies in place. Ireland is ready to play its part.”
Prof Anderson said that for Ireland to achieve that 1.5 per cent target its annual reductions of emissions needed to be in the order of a whopping 30 per cent per annum (he included aviation and shipping). Remember that in 2019 the then government was saying Ireland would struggle to reduce emissions by 2 per cent per annum.
Prof Anderson, Prof Barry McMullin and Paul Price of DCU and John Sweeney (emeritus professor from the University of Maynooth) all argued the carbon budgets needed to go further than the CCAC proposals. When the academics were asked what measures would be needed, it was then it became dramatic.
The one that grabbed most attention was the suggestion that rationing of fossil fuels such as petrol and diesel be introduced. There were other suggestions such as an immediate halt to forest felling, halting peat extraction (huge volumes continue to be exported for gardening); reductions of the national herd, as well as restrictions for drivers (including paid congestion zones in cities).
Some of the politicians baulked at such astringent medicine. Richard Bruton of Fine Gael (who as Minister brought forward climate change legislation) said those solutions were not realistic.
Calling for more restrictions was “pretty aggressive”, he said, when the CCAC’s recommendations were already being regarded by politicians as an impossible task.
“We don’t have unfettered capacity to implement changes such as the rationing as described. You would have to be conscious of the reaction of the Maillots Jaunes (Yellow Vest protesters) in France to much more modest proposals (on fuel prices).”
Bruton argued the CCAC was giving politicians the best shot to make real inroads. Introducing “top-down” rationing of fossil fuel to business and homes was not “practical politics”, he contended.
In fairness to the scientists, they said if Ireland wanted to meet the 1.5 per cent that’s what needed to be done. The science does not lie. Downplaying it, or pretending there was a choice in the matter, did not help, said Prof McMullin.
That was the first of two big yawning gaps that emerged during the week. This one was between science and politics. The second gap is the one that exists between when a political decision is made, when (or if) it is actually implemented.
It’s not as if the CCAC kicked to touch. It has presented only a slightly less scary prospect than the independent scientists did. Its members, including Marie Donnelly, spoke to the committee on Tuesday. We learned it had looked at drafting the carbon budgets not just through the prism of science. A member of the council, Prof Briain Ó Gallachóir of UCC. told the committee on Tuesday that it “looked at impacts on the economy, employment, competitiveness and climate justice”.
Cumulatively the two budgets will allow Ireland emissions to be reduced by half by 2030. The first half of the decade is slightly easier but it’s still daunting. One of the big messages from the Greens in the run-up to the 2020 election was the potential for carbon sinks through rewetting bogs and more afforestation. Is that going to happen between now and 2030? Speaker after speaker who appeared before the committee said not a chance.
The prospects for Ireland’s forests were particularly depressing. Complicated licensing and felling laws, reluctance by farmers to consider forestry as an option, an over-concentration on Sitka Spruce and inadequate policies have led to a huge crisis. Andrew St Ledger of the Environment Pillar said that afforestation levels were at their lowest since the 1930s.
The CCAC’s Donnelly intimated the forests and bogs – one of our great bankers as a carbon sink – will actually become net emitters of greenhouse gasses within the next few years.“Even if we planted half of Ireland today we wouldn’t have a sink in place by 2030,” she said.
Dr David Styles of the UL said that a million hectares (out of 7 million hectares) was needed for afforestation and rewetting, but its benefits would not be felt until after 2040.
Likewise, the long odds of getting 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) on Irish roads by 2030. Dr Hannah Daly of UCC pointed out that there were 4,000 EVs sold last year but 11,000 SUVs at the same time. Her argument? Signals must change if behaviour is to change.
The first carbon budget has already started and we are travelling in the wrong direction. Right now the emissions trajectory for both agriculture and transport is going up not down.
Plenty of times during the week we returned to farming and what comprised a fair share of the burden. The IFA argued that it should be asked to deliver no more than a minimum 22 per cent in reductions (meaning more reductions for other sectors). That would involve no reduction in herd numbers.
Farming has based its argument on per-unit carbon efficiency. That’s all well and good yet, overall, the agrifood industry (especially dairy) continues to expand. Social Justice Ireland in particular pointed out this contradiction. “Increases in herd sizes on dairy farms is undermining any gains from more efficient and sustainable farming practices,” it argued.
Somebody once said that political reform is like taking a dog from a bone. The problem is there is no painless way of achieving it. The debate on farming is probably the best example of that.
The majority of those who appeared do not oppose the carbon budgets set out by the CCAC. Everybody seems to agree with emissions reductions in principle. But when it comes to implementing reductions in real life, they then oppose it.