Climate crisis threatens to deepen inequality in Ireland

Already disadvantaged people face potentially more precarious situation

A truck burns during a protest of gilets jaunes against rising oil prices and living costs on the Champs Élysées in Paris. Photograph:  Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

A truck burns during a protest of gilets jaunes against rising oil prices and living costs on the Champs Élysées in Paris. Photograph: Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty Images

 

The richest 10 per cent of Ireland’s population emit almost as much carbon as the poorest 50 per cent, according to a report published by Oxfam.

The analysis found that since 1990, emissions cuts across the European Union have taken place against a backdrop of growing social and economic inequality, thus undermining the bloc’s goal of scaling up climate ambition and transitioning to carbon neutrality in response to what science is indicating.

The experience of the yellow vest movement in France has shown how quickly attempts to cut emissions can unravel if policies are not seen to be fair. Nationwide demonstrations were sparked by fuel taxes implemented in 2018 as part of the country’s climate-change strategy.

The rising cost of fuel was seen to place a disproportionate economic burden on working and middle classes, especially those living in rural areas – in spite of what climate science was indicating, including the case for carbon pricing.

Addressing this imbalance is an issue of climate justice, which is closely linked to existing social inequalities, says Rose Wall, chief executive of Community Law and Mediation – her organisation fights legal cases that advance equality and social justice and recently opened a centre for environmental justice.

“It’s undisputed that climate change will affect marginalised communities more,” Wall adds. “But also climate action itself has the potential to disproportionately impact disadvantaged and marginalised communities. And this is further compounded by the fact that those communities aren’t engaged in these issues and their voices and needs aren’t heard when it comes to policy change and policymaking.”

Wall says issues such as housing and healthcare make it difficult for people in marginalised groups to look beyond “the end of the month”, let alone the latest climate indicators. This is in spite of a real connection between these social issues and the environment.

Flooding will impact homes; carbon taxes and substandard housing will affect energy costs; and air pollution combined with pre-existing medical conditions will impact health. She highlights the need for capacity building and empowerment in local communities which allows them to become part of a fairer dialogue around climate.

“The more we share the burdens and benefits of climate action, and the more that communities see their lives improve, the better the transition [to carbon neutrality] will be,” says Seán McCabe, a researcher at Tasc, the independent think tank for action on social change in Ireland.

McCabe is concerned policies addressing climate change will “reproduce the class assumptions and power dynamics that exist in our current society”.

“We have to select a set of policies appropriate to how we envisage the future, and my concern is that we haven’t done that visionary work yet,” he adds.

There are ways to create that vision, says McCabe, through addressing community priorities and transforming them into effective climate action: “Not what you think communities should do, but what they want to do.”

One step towards achieving this is through restructured governance systems that localise democracy and give communities “power, agency and resources to act during the climate crisis”.

Motivated communities must be supported by political will to act in response to the consequences of an overheating planet. This is a priority for Social Democrats TD for Wicklow Jennifer Whitmore.

“What I see is that our communities are telling us that they want to address climate change, our communities know that there are major issues coming down the road, our communities are aware that there is a biodiversity crisis, and all they’re looking for is leadership and help in addressing those from a community perspective. . . and government is the one that’s falling behind in identifying that demand.”

Political goals

Systemic change in governance might involve shifting political goals so they are based on social and ecological wellbeing, treating economic growth as a means to achieving these priorities – rather than being an end in itself.

Such a shift underpins a more progressive response to the climate crisis, Whitmore urges. “There is no cohesive approach to how we manage [the climate crisis] and it’s all being done through the lens of an economic system as opposed to trying to create an Ireland with communities that are sustainable and having the economics to support them.”

“The Government has prioritised certain climate actions, and yet continues to fund opposing policies. As an example, the Government is subsidising very environmentally damaging industries, the funding of which is often ‘hidden’, so we need to have transparency about that,”she adds.

“We have an implementation deficit and policies take so long to roll out that we don’t achieve what we set out to achieve. The climate crisis isn’t going to wait for us to get our systems in place – it’s going to happen without us so we need to get a whole lot quicker in dealing with it,” Whitmore insists.

The landmark Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill has climate justice among its goals. While commending the overall strength of the Bill, Wall questions the Government’s commitment up to this particular point.

“I think it’s crucial for government to frame this issue as a justice issue and an equality issue . . . If you look at the climate Bill, I think it’s quite weak on those two things,” she underlines.

It is critical, Wall says, that the response to the climate crisis looks at related issues faced by communities experiencing disadvantage such as workers’ rights, energy poverty, health, housing and transport. Such an approach would have the significant benefit of dealing with wider issues of inequality, resulting in positive engagement with communities and more sustainable and beneficial outcomes.

The 2020 European Commission country report for Ireland highlighted the country has so far lagged behind in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in transport, building and agriculture. Yet tackling emissions will put jobs in these sectors at risk, so how can a post-carbon Ireland be achieved in an equitable manner?

Job guarantees should be introduced, Oxfam advised in its report last year. This would transform sectors which will be impacted, thereby generating employment opportunities through infrastructure projects that expand renewable-energy production, public-transport networks, bicycle routes and retrofitting homes.

The obvious example is support for employees, contractors and local services in the midlands, where transition work is under way with semi-State company Bord na Móna getting out of peat production. A new just-transition fund is available for projects that generate sustainable employment in green enterprise for the region.

Energy-efficient home renovations represent another area that risks leaving people from lower- and middle-income groups behind. A “renovation wave” proposed by the European Commission could ensure grant-based support and caps that prevent rents from increasing afterwards. It recommended the Government deploy such measures in its goal to retrofit 500,000 homes by 2030.

Corporate responsibility

As well as building community resilience, Whitmore believes achieving climate justice requires that individuals and corporations most culpable for climate change bear the greatest responsibility.

“I do think that corporations have been given a free ride, I think the environmental considerations of their actions haven’t been costed in how they perform a lot of the time,”she says.

Policy measures that target luxury emissions, such as private jets and SUVs, can generate revenues for investing in social-protection measures, such as those outlined above, the authors of the Oxfam report suggested.

In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, the report noted, the total annual emissions of the richest 1 per cent grew by 5 per cent, while those of the poorest 50 per cent actually fell by 24 per cent.

Further actions might include ending tax breaks for aircraft fuel and exploring mechanisms that discourage frequent flying. Companies should be required to disclose their carbon emissions and plans to transition to net zero, while ensuring the cost of doing so is borne by shareholders rather than workers.

Climate chaos is not a distant prospect for Ireland. The 2018 fodder crisis hinted at growing seasonal instability, and flood mapping projections for the remainder of the century provide an alarming visualisation of the future.

“There are families living parts of north Dublin and Limerick who are impacted [by flooding] almost every year; and that’s getting worse,” Wall points out. “Their homes are uninsurable, their homes are going into the sea because of coastal erosion . . . It’s not clear what happens to those people; there’s no policy response.”

“I don’t think that’s something we’re grappling with,” McCabe says. “We have to get very real about how imminent and how devastating it could be here.”

The climate crisis is placing already disadvantaged people in a more precarious situation. Transforming this vicious cycle of inequality into a virtuous track built on resilience and sustainability will involve a major shift in thinking and leadership from politicians, businesses and local communities.