What will the Greens in government mean for how we live and work?
More spending on public transport among the party’s wins in programme for government
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan before at Government buildings. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The initial reaction from most political quarters is that the Greens are the big winners in the deal for government with a new emphasis on sustainability. But what will that mean in how we live, work, and produce food, energy and goods?
The critical elements in that regard, and areas where the Greens have nailed down some of their biggest wins, are:
The parties have agreed to cut carbon emissions, averaged at 7 per cent a year up to 2030. This was the biggest ask by the Green Party and it will have a dramatic impact on how the economy operates and every aspect of society from how we get from A to B; how we heat our homes, and how we use land . It will require every major action and euro spend by government to be “climate proofed”.
But big actions under this heading inevitably take time to deliver a significant return in emission reductions, so it was wise to embrace a longer timeframe rather than a 7 per cent cut guaranteed every year from the get-go.
Right up there in terms of big wins was reversing the 2 to 1 spend between roads and public transport. On top of that will be annual spend of €360 million on walking and cycling infrastructure to be allocated before the new 2 to 1 split in favour of public transport.
This will have the most radical effect on urban landscapes and on long-suffering commuters. BusConnects will be rolled out not just in Dublin but also in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, coinciding with investment on inter-city rail, DART and Luas being scaled up.
Roads maintenance budgets, a key priority for local authorities and rural Ireland, will not be cut, while development of greenways will be facilitated beyond obvious tourism hotspots.
The key ingredient in getting people out of cars will be options that are safe and attractive, whether it’s going on public transport, cycling or walking.
The ability of local authorities to quickly scale-up developments on these fronts is open to question, though forced changes arising from the Covid-19 pandemic show what can be achieved quickly with new thinking.
3. Carbon tax
Much of the financial pain will come in the form of a carbon tax will rise to €100 a tonne of CO2 equivalent by 2030, higher than the €80 figure previously agreed by an all-party Oireachtas committee and adopted by the out-going Government.
The revenues are to be ringfenced for climate action in tandem with measures to address fuel poverty to ease impact on the less well-off with little choice but to buy fossil fuels.
The carbon tax will not change to a “fee and dividend” model – no refunds or cheques in post (as mooted by the Greens), but proceeds likely to add up to billions of euro will be ring-fenced for climate measures
The Greens will point to the returns in the form of cleaner air quality, especially in cities (reinformed by a new clean air strategy); an energy system that is dominated by renewable energy and the prospect of EVs that are (eventually in the second half of the decade) cheaper than petrol and diesel-fuelled cars.
The sector is about to undergo major change, and not simply at the behest of the Greens. A much-reformed CAP in the offing at EU level means each party had to be pragmatic and acknowledge sustainability is the new mantra.
For differing reasons, however, the issue comes with greatest risk of coming unstuck in terms of each party ratifying the deal. So “carrots” rather the “sticks” stand out.
Contrary to much political speculation around methane (responsible for most emissions on farms due to livestock numbers) and a possible cull on the national herd, the Greens’ start-out point was to ensure a sustainable income for farmers, especially family farms.
The carrots come in the form of major supports for their stewardship of the land, notably an expanded Rural Environment Protection Scheme and supports for low income farmers to move to sustainable farming. Incentives will be offered to encourage reduced fertiliser use, planting of native woodland and re-wilding of parts of their land.
Methane warms the atmosphere more than CO2 so its climate impact cannot be ignored though it disperses more quickly. So methane reduction targets are to be introduced for the first time, but alongside acknowledgement of farmers’ contribution to capturing carbon in terms of forestry and embracing renewable energy. The targets, however, are not specified in the programme.
Putting in place an independent food ombudsman will soothe farmers within the ranks of the bigger parties, who have concerns about returns from farming, especially beef production.
The deal sets the country on a clear path away from fossil fuel use, especially in power generation. It sends an emphatic signal that renewable energy sources are the future.
Construction of fossil fuel infrastructure, including the planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant earmarked for the Shannon estuary, will be halted – while further exploration of gas in the waters off Ireland and importation of LNG will be prohibited.
This is a much cherished win for hardline greens which puts Ireland among climate leader countries. But more significant changes are in the offing for consumers including a massive retrofitting programme of some 500,000 homes facilitated by cheap funding options and a one-stop-show for householders.
It will be an “aggregated” model, meaning certain towns or areas will be retrofitted at the same time to achieve economies of scale, starting in the midlands where peat-fired power stations are being closed – the coal-fired Moneypoint facility in Co Clare faces the same fate.
Cheaper electricity is envisaged with a grid catering for 70 per cent renewables with offshore wind set for major expansion in the Irish Sea and along the western seaboard.
The fuel mix in transport is set for diversification including production of green/renewable gas, and hydrogen in heavy transport.
Among the most far-reaching impact, however, will the ability to participate in the imminent energy revolution, whether its communities embracing renewable energy projects or businesses and households feeding excess electricity form microgeneration into the national grid and getting paid for it.
Affordability has been a key issue for the Greens in negotiations on housing. Those who believe social justice is equally important as saving the planet will point to significant gains here.
The Land Development Agency will develop cost rental housing, as well as affordable purchase homes, affordable rental homes and social housing on State-owned land. Some 50,000 social homes will be provided over the next five years, with an emphasis on new builds.
The prioritisation of an affordable home for low and middle income earners will be further reinforced by a referendum on the right to housing.
The deal proposes a broader economic perspective – another Green priorty – encompassing “a set of wellbeing indices to create a well-rounded, holistic view of how our society is faring” and “a balanced scorecard for each area of public policy focused on outcomes and the impact that those policies have on individuals and communities. Initially this will be focused on housing, education and health”.
This approach extends to the provision of affordable childcare and an improved care deal for older people “in an age-friendly Ireland”.
For most people in the climate movement and the Green Party, a biodiversity crisis manifest in species loss and deterioration of eco-systems is taking place at the same time as the world is experiencing extreme global warming.
It may not attract big headlines in terms of what is in this deal but actions under this heading have to be extensive and far-reaching with a clear understanding that there will be urgent implementation, if this deal is to get approval from rank-and-file Greens.
That is why there are significant elements on “nature-based solutions” such as re-wetting of bogs to not only sequester carbon but to also restore biodiversity, and the putting in place of more Marine Protected Areas around our coastline.
A review of the role and funding of the National Parks & Wildlife Service to ensure it is effective in protecting wildlife and proceeding with the citizens’ assembly on biodiversity provide further assurance on this front.
9. The Climate Budget
Five-yearly carbon budgets are going to be the new norm with far-reaching consequences across all sections of the economy. In short, this mechanism will set binding limits on what each sector can emit in terms of carbon. This process will be reinforced by new legal powers for the State’s climate watchdog.
It will require a considerably strengthened Climate Change Advisory Council with a broader range of expertise than heretofore. The changes are spelt out in a new Climate Change Bill promised to be delivered within the first 100 days of the new administration.
10. Faster and fairer climate action
The next decade will see two major transitions: to a low-carbon future and to greater digitalisation, automation, and robotics, the programme for government says. Both “will unleash huge changes in society, and while presenting significant challenges, will also bring a range of opportunities.” The midlands is already seeing the immense consequences of Bord na Móna getting out of peat production. In some cases, this will impact entire industries and regions. In others, particular trades or professions may become obsolete.
As the Greens view it, a just transition pathway is vital to acceptance of tough climate actions. It has to deliver alternative job opportunities to sectors and regions that will be most affected, and to ensure vulnerable groups are helped as transformative policies are implemented.
A just transition for them is not only of paramount importance but they insist it must be tied into faster implementation of climate actions as scientists say there is less than 10 years to avoid irreversible impacts on the planet.
There is a lot in the programme for government on ensuring a fair transition; reassurance on the urgency issue will have to be addressed by those selling the deal.