Autumn will bring major arguments on Ireland’s climate plan

Cliff Taylor: Building political support for the scale of action needed is a huge task

The Dixie Fire burns near Quincy, California, US, in July 2021. The economic costs of avoiding climate action are huge. Photograph: Nic Coury/The New York Times

Big rows are coming in the autumn on climate policy. The Government signed off on the Climate Action Bill, but agreeing how to make it happen will be a whole other ball game. And the political task of bringing the public along with this is immense.

We are arguing about a few bike lanes, when to have the slightest chance of meeting our climate goals we require a revolution in transport. And in agriculture. And energy. And industry. There are really big positives, of course – new jobs, new industries, and better lifestyles. Common sense suggests opportunities for Ireland in renewable energy. But there are costs, too. Put any of these on the table, though, and you get the whataboutery. What about China? What about the farmers (if you aren't one)? What about people driving big gas guzzlers? And so on.

Meanwhile the “just transition card” is being played relentlessly. A “just transition”, in the sense that the worst off are protected, is essential. But it is ludicrous to link this with opposition to essential measures like a higher carbon tax.

The big arguments will be triggered this autumn as the Government is obliged to come up with a Climate Action Plan to show how it will meet the goals of the climate Bill, and – crucially – turn these into carbon budgets for different departments. So the Department of Transport will have targets for its sector. And so will the Department of Agriculture, whose recent plan for the food sector has laid out expansion plans which other departments feel do not go anywhere near far enough in terms of cutting emissions.


Ibec's recent economic outlook pointed out that even with post-2019 policy ambitions, modelling by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has our yearly emissions at 48 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent by 2030, when we now need to be down to 30 million tonnes. In other words, the plans in place so far – the rise in carbon tax, the renewable energy targets, the plans for electric cars and so on – will only get us so far. As the EPA itself put it: "The scale of the changes necessary is difficult to overstate."

Political consensus

Creating some kind of political consensus for this is hugely challenging, notwithstanding the doom-laden warnings on the climate crisis and the recent extreme climate events. This is because it will change the way we live. And we haven’t as yet got any kind of agreed political vision of how this can be made work for people.

Economics has been based for the last few hundred years on higher incomes, production and consumption. The green agenda requires something else – less consumption, certainly less harmful consumption. An end of the “attract foreign direct investment at all costs” strategy. A recasting of what we see as personal economic “success”, and even our traditional living patterns.

We can’t frame this as a choice between going for growth and going for green. Because the economic risks – and the risks to the public finances – of not acting are huge. The UK Office for Budget Responsibility said that the cost of achieving net zero by 2050 was significant for the UK, but probably manageable. It would, it estimated, add slightly less than the Covid-19 crisis did to the UK national debt burden, but over a longer period.

But the costs of not acting could be enormous. Firstly, not moving quickly runs the risk of having to do a lot very quickly. More significantly, in the longer term, the potential fiscal costs from unabated climate change are enormous – for example, potentially doubling the UK national debt to stratospheric levels. Ireland faces the same outlook. And of course the wider economic and social costs of continued global warming are massive – arising from flooding, extreme weather events, destruction of environments and so on.

The political catches here are twofold. One is that some of the costs need to be taken up front – and the costs of not doing so come much later. So there is a huge inter-generational issue here. And the second is that overall success on the climate crisis depends on the bigger polluting countries reducing emissions, and so much of the risk comes from insufficient international – not national – action. The point of international agreements is to avoid some countries having a “free ride” and letting others do the work.

Binding targets

The sharp end of agreeing Ireland’s climate policies will come with the climate budgets, outlining the binding sectoral targets. Already the lobbying is intense. The multinational sector is arguing that the electricity-guzzling data centres are an integral part of a modern economy. The agricultural sector will resist calls for fundamental change. Subsidies for electric cars will be popular, but higher prices for petrol and diesel won’t be. The cost of retrofitting homes and buildings will be huge. And the goal of denser city-centre living, central to reducing transport emissions, is something which is part of national spatial policy but never really discussed.

Already there are mutterings and finger-pointing between Government departments. And Sinn Féin, the main Opposition party, pursues a policy of opposing the planned carbon tax increases, which makes as little sense as its opposition to the residential property tax. Or it makes little sense from a common sense point of view, but perhaps perfect political sense because not surprisingly people don’t want to pay more tax.

So watch the way this debate is framed as the political season restarts. A Government exhausted by Covid-19 faces an electorate in the same position. Green Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan got the two big parties to sign up to the climate Bill. But does he have Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar on board for selling the message of how to do this? We will soon find out. Sparks will fly.