Cliff Taylor: Rules of the new economy are being written in green

No one will invest in a country seen to be a climate laggard

The row on banning turf was just the latest example of how the climate debate always turns into a zero sum game row where someone wins and someone loses. The Government was forced into a kind of half-retreat and you are left wondering how on earth we are ever going to get our heads around the much more difficult things which need to be done to get anywhere near our climate targets.

Of course it is easy looking in from the outside. Politicians are caught in the traditional bind of wanting to do the right thing which will be to the wider benefit of society, but being opposed by a smaller group which is directly affected. Sinn Féin, as on the carbon tax, is happy to oppose, without any indication of how it would make the difficult choices to cut emissions. And so a fudge emerges, a solution may emerge in time, and on we go.

There is one key aspect which is missing from the climate debate, one way it which it needs to be re-framed to bring it home to people that we don’t have any choice here and that “leaving it to China” or whatever other evasionary tactic is in people’s heads is not a viable way forward. It is that the future of the economy – at national, regional and local level – is dependent on making a success of this.

No one will invest in future in a country seen to be a climate laggard. Companies are being pushed to clean up their act by investors, customers, financiers, regulators and their own employees. To underpin investment in the Irish economy in future, we have to make this work.

Of course this is a secondary concern to the small matter of a global effort needed to save the planet. But this does not seem to be having the required impact on our politics or in many other countries – the worst impacts are still some time away and other issues keep impinging.

Politics is still driven by a generation of older politicians, lobbied most successfully by those looking after the interests of generally older voters, who are embedded in our “system”. Younger voters, the ones who have a bigger stake in environmental issues, have less of an organised voice, notwithstanding the very strong contribution from elements of the climate lobby. And so the debate on turf and on coal burning is framed by the inconvenience to the people burning turf – and not by the damage caused via emissions and air pollution.

Opportunity

The politics of this needs to be re-framed. Ireland has an opportunity here. Ireland's regions have an opportunity. Yet this is being missed. For example, a recent row over a new cycle lane in Galway is pitched as motorists and some retailers versus cyclists and walkers. But there is an opportunity here for Galway – or any other city – to attract investment and skilled staff by pushing the green agenda as hard as possible at local level.

The best younger employees will be attracted to locations where they can have a green lifestyle. Streets clogged with cars and winter skies full of smoke and noxious fumes will have the opposite impact.

And it goes further than that. Big investment funds who are shareholders in all the major companies are now pushing the green agenda hard, as part of a focus on sustainability and governance. In turn, this is driven by the huge publicity costs which will face companies on the wrong side of this move and the risk of ending up investing in so-called stranded assets – putting their money in businesses which have no future as climate regulations tighten.

This week AIB chief executive Colin Hunt was the latest to point to the favourable terms being offered for "green" lending and the increasing move to refuse to lend to fossil fuel-based projects. Banks, like investors, will fight shy of financing what may soon become stranded assets. Customers will increasingly demand sustainable products – a key message for the Irish food industry. And on it goes.

Global action

Scientists are warning ever more loudly of the need to take global action – the war may lead to a short-term delay in phasing out fossil fuels, but in the years to 2030 it should also spur an acceleration of investment in renewable energy.

The opportunities for Ireland, particularly in offshore wind energy, are very significant both to fuel the electricity transition here and supply export markets like Germany via green hydrogen. But with the UK already advancing fast here, Ireland needs to put the pieces together to deliver. Speedier planning is vital. A new planning and environmental division of the High Court is now being planned for next year to speed the delivery of housing but also environmental projects. It needs to happen. Suffice to say that reports of the intention to examine this go back at least as far as 1999.

Taking advantage of the green opportunity requires the assessment process for all investment decisions being made by Government being reshaped. The working from home debate, for example, needs to be driven by reducing transport emissions from long commutes and not as some compromise between business and employees. All investments need to be seen through a green lens. This process has started, but there is still a way to go.

Politically, we require a mindset change – nationally and locally. Weaning us all off our high carbon lifestyles is a huge political challenge. The threat of planet destruction should, of course, be more than enough. But the temptation for a small country to let decisions slide and hope the big players do the heavy lifting on reducing emissions will always exist. The point is that there would also be a huge economic cost for doing this. The rules of the new economy are being written in green.