The Irish Times view on carbon taxes: it’s time for leadership

Irish emissions are going in the wrong direction, and the cost of inaction now will be considerably greater in coming years

Over coming months the Government needs to ensure two cornerstones for long-term climate change policy move into place. The first is to set a trajectory for rising carbon taxes, while determining what exact form the levy takes. The second is to agree a whole-of-government response that amounts to a sustained intensification of actions to reduce carbon emissions andcounter the climate chaos likely to hit planet Earth by mid-century. The science is clear; the economic impact will be many times worse than a hard Brexit.

With foresight, political co-operation, and a co-ordinated response by businesses, communities and individuals, the worst effects of a warming world can be ameliorated and the considerable economic benefits of immediate, targeted actions realised. In the case of carbon tax, it will require cross-party support, leadership and deft communications in a scenario where there is much mistrust of government and the fossil fuel sector will lobby to protect its assets.

Politicians will be mindful of the hard lessons of the gilets jaunes protests in France, sparked partly by an increase in diesel taxes. Public appetite for any tax increase is rare; in this case it will need to be a "carbon tax that works for citizens", that protects the less well-off, if it is to secure acceptance. The short-term politically expedient reaction might be to not go there. But carbon tax applied in the right way is the most effective means of shifting people to a decarbonised world quickly.

Irish emissions are going in the wrong direction, out of step with most of Europe. What's more, the cost of inaction now will be considerably greater in coming years – for starters, a bill of up to €3 billion in compliance costs arising from not meeting national commitments lurks for the period up to 2030.

There is evidence to suggest a “fee and dividend” approach works. The fee is a levy on polluting fossil fuels, while the citizens get a regular dividend or payback, which could be by cheque in the post. It is simple and is not revenue-raising.

The opportunity to forge consensus arises through the work of the temporary Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action. It is due to report by the end of January on how Ireland needs to respond in light of the Citizen's Assembly recommendations and the need to meet demanding EU requirements on climate and energy. If agreement on the carbon tax is achieved, it will amount to a good day's work and further underline the committee's effectiveness in identifying actions to be pursued with greater urgency.

There is a case for putting the committee on a permanent footing as it would be the ideal platform to examine how best to adopt long-term carbon budgets, and to set out robust roadmaps to decarbonise transport and agriculture.