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Cliff Taylor: Rural and urban Ireland will fight over who pays the price in climate debate

Targets and trade-offs will prompt finger-pointing by all affected sectors

I’m never sure how to write about the climate crisis. Would you like another “the world must act” piece? Or perhaps the one on how “our lives are going to change really significantly”? Writing about the crisis feels like a mix of preaching to the converted and trying to attract the attention of those who agree that “something must be done” but don’t really feel it has a lot to do with them. Surveys show people want climate action, but are sceptical on measures such as higher carbon taxes.

So the political economics of this are difficult. The Government will shortly publish its updated Climate Change Action Plan. This will set a target range for various sectors of the economy which will be narrowed to specific legally binding targets for each area. This has been widely seen as the moment the rubber really hits the road on the climate debate here.

So far, I don’t think either consumers or most businesses have really copped on to the scale of what this will all mean. As some wiser heads have observed, it puts the annual budget into the shade. But the gap between everyone knowing huge change is on the way and this being translated into practical implications for how we live has still, somehow, to be bridged. We will all nod along to the serious words from Cop26, but that won’t make the politics of this any easier.

Farmers will point at industry and vice versa, the Opposition will call for a focus on unnamed 'big polluters', rural and urban Ireland will fight about who pays the price

The Climate Change Advisory Council – charged with setting overall targets – published a "technical report" alongside its recommended greenhouse gas targets, which envisage an annual average 4.8 per cent reduction up to 2025 and a 8.3 per cent average fall from 2025 to 2030. It is the period during which, if we are to meet our 2050 carbon-neutral target, we have to do a lot of the heavy-lifting and make a lot of the big expensive investments which will pay off over time.


The technical report is not an easy read. The clue is in the name I suppose. It has more acronyms than a Northern Ireland election count and some complex science. But the council has done its work. And its report points clearly to where this is going to go politically. And while this may be a slow burner over the next few weeks, there are surely some explosions on the way.

It will challenge Ireland in a few areas where our politics struggle. One is clearly facing up to trade-offs. The science is clear that carbon reductions are needed across the board. But there are clear decisions to be made on what targets face different sectors. Choose to put less of the burden on agriculture and you end up putting more on the energy sector, transport and transitions by households and businesses, as shown by the various scenarios in the council’s report.

Clear sectoral targets force a decision here – they make the trade-offs hard to duck. A vital decision will be the target reductions set for agriculture, with the sector saying anything above the 15-18 per cent range by 2030 will cause massive damage, while the council’s calculations indicate that a goal of at least 33 per cent is needed, if completely unrealistic targets are not to be set elsewhere.

Those of you who saw Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue being interviewed by Sarah McInerney on RTÉ’s Prime Time this week can now understand why he was being so frustratingly coy about the likely targets. Because this is political dynamite.

Trade-offs are also required in directing resources to the transition. There are clear upfront investment costs – the council puts them at €5 billion per annum, or a bit over 2 per cent of national output, in additional investment, as a minimum. McKinsey consultants say it could be twice that when you count in redirected investment which would otherwise have gone into more polluting activities. In a paper for the council, economist John FitzGerald points out this will involve redirecting State – and consumer – spending from other areas and probably also higher taxes. And this creates economic costs.

There will be big trade-offs here for the State finances in the years ahead, especially when you also count in the cost of compensating those who are most exposed. And in today’s populist politics, with the biggest opposition party, Sinn Féin, even opposing modest increases in carbon tax, this isn’t going to be easy.

Trade-offs will bring about the classic whataboutery of Irish political debate. Farmers will point at industry and vice versa, the Opposition will call for a focus on unnamed “big polluters”, rural and urban Ireland will fight about who pays the price and so on. Climate justice – the important goal of protecting those who can’t afford to pay – will be a widely abused phrase, pulled into the debate to justify opposition to additional burdens. And some whisper that this is all up to big polluting countries such as China and the US – and sure all we can do is our best.

The transition will also challenge us in other ways. It will require the construction of massive infrastructure in areas like wind energy and car-charging and a huge retrofitting and home-heating programme. Ireland’s planning regime and the difficulty of managing major projects pose significant challenges here, as we have seen over the years. Implementation is all.

And the Government action plan will also underline the need for lower demand from consumers as part of the solution to cutting emissions. So walking and cycling instead of driving and so on – meaning big changes for urban planning and questions of what can be achieved in rural Ireland.

The Climate Change Action Plan will be the next staging post. It will be interesting to see if the Government tackles the key trade-offs head on or tries to sneak up on them.