Predictably, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) recommendation that the Government reconsider the introduction for household water charges was a lightning rod, instantly resurfacing trenchant opposition to such a move. Such charges are in the best interests of the planet and Ireland stands out among OECD countries in not applying them, but political wounds are still raw.
That aside, there is much to commend in the 10-year review of Ireland’s environmental performance. It recognises progress and increased climate ambition, yet underlines the need for bolder action and enhanced delivery across Government. Carbon emissions, waste generation and agriculture-caused pollution all rose with strong economic growth prior to the pandemic, it warns – with every likelihood this will recur without swift interventions and a green recovery.
The OECD sets out a range of measures on increasing carbon taxes more vigorously than currently envisaged, while stressing the need to protect the most vulnerable. Opportunities from weaning off fossil fuels will be substantial, it confirms. At a time of unfavourable tax revenues, however, not getting the balance right in terms of behavioural nudges to pursue sustainable choices while increasingly penalising carbon pollution risks undermining early momentum and greatly adding to the decarbonisation bill.
Recent evidence from attempts to agree a new agri-food strategy and the row over An Taisce’s opposition to a large cheese plant proposed for Co Kilkenny suggests the “hard decisions” phase has arrived. Setting Ireland’s first five-year carbon budget underpinned by sectoral emission limits over coming months will be immensely challenging. If agriculture gets an easy ride, more stringent demands will be placed on other sectors – it is the reality of carbon accounting.
Already, there is polarisation and insufficient trust. A recent Oireachtas Agriculture Committee meeting attended by An Taisce did not inspire confidence. That threatens to undermine political consensus forged by the Climate Committee which ensured a robust Climate Action Bill.
A new model for Irish agriculture based on the understanding that farming has to change is required, where farmers commit to reducing methane emissions and yet have viable incomes within a thriving rural economy.
It can only be done with parity of esteem and a clear course under an agreed national land use plan. Social partnership is a proven approach. The issues are clear; all stakeholders need to be brought around the table and given a deadline to concentrate minds. Otherwise, as the OECD has warned in the broader context, building a sustainable Ireland will be impaired precisely at the time national effort needs to be intensified.