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Fintan O’Toole: ‘Bomb the economy’ is the only climate strategy that’s worked in Ireland

How can Scotland meet climate targets while Ireland fails? One word: leadership

First minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon attends the opening of The European Offshore Wind Deployment Centre located in Aberdeen Bay on September 7th, 2018 off the coast of Aberdeen, Scotland. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

Imagine a person who can only lose weight, not by going on a diet, but by accidentally running out of food. It is a grim fact that Ireland’s only really effective way of responding to climate change has been to go into recession. We succeed by failing.

Since 2005 the most significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions were caused by the implosion of the economy between 2008 to 2012. This “success” will be repeated in 2020 because of the coronavirus crisis, whose main benign effect is a likely reduction in Irish carbon emissions of around 12 per cent this year.

If the recession it causes is deep enough, we may even, as Samuel Beckett has it, fail better. It is an Irish twist on the idea of collateral damage: collateral benefit. Bomb the economy and we get some green shoots of climate action.

We have a very clear example right next door of the viability of rapid change. If Scotland can do it, so can Ireland

As a strategy, this surely has its limits. But of course, it is not a strategy at all. It is accident, not action. The decent environmental consequences, when we’ve had them, have been not merely unintended but unwanted. They result, not from getting our act together, but from things falling apart. Once we get up and running and again, we go back to pumping out the gases.


What does it say about leadership on climate change when disasters have been much more effective in allowing us to meet our international obligations than any official plans?

If Ireland is to get anywhere close to fulfilling the stated aim of being a leader on climate change, it must start with a radically transformed sense of national purpose.

The best way to grasp what this means is simply to look to the country that is probably closest to Ireland in size, geography and culture: Scotland. The Scottish government is less powerful than ours – it does not enjoy full sovereignty. Yet its performance on climate change is light years ahead of Ireland’s.

Scotland deliberately made things hard for itself. The UK government set a target of a 32 per cent reduction by 2020 on the level of greenhouse gas emissions in 1990. In the Climate Change Act unanimously adopted by the Scottish Parliament in 2009, the target is 42 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050.

How has it fared?

Radical change

Scotland will not reach its 42 per cent reduction target in 2020. It met it in 2015, five years early. It is now at 47 per cent. It went from getting 10 per cent of its electricity consumption from renewable sources 15 years ago to 60 per cent now. It is on track to get near its 100 per cent target in the early 2020s.

And Scotland’s neighbour to the west? More like its evil twin. Ireland set less ambitious targets and failed abysmally to meet them.

Ireland’s target was a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, relative to 2005 levels. Before the coronavirus crisis, the Environmental Protection Agency’s emissions projections indicated that, by 2020, a reduction of between five and six per cent will have been achieved.

Scotland's leaders deliberately chose a target high enough to excite their citizens

Without radical and rapid change, cumulative Irish emissions of greenhouse gases are also on course to exceed the 2030 target of 376 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, by between 52 and 67 million tonnes.

In Scotland, emissions from transport increased by 0.4 per cent from 1990 to 2017. Over the same period in Ireland, emissions from transport rose by 133 per cent. Scotland already gets twice the proportion of its electricity (60 per cent) from renewables as Ireland does (30 per cent).

Scotland is on course to plant 10,000 new hectares of forestry every year. The rate of afforestation in Ireland in 2017 actually fell to 5,000 hectares, with provisional figures for 2018 falling even further to 4,000 hectares. At these rates, Ireland will not attain the national policy goal of covering 18 per cent of land with forest any time in the 21st century, let alone within the lifetime of any current climate action plan.

At one level, this shameful contrast is actually good news. It makes a nonsense of the claims that radical reductions in Ireland’s emissions are extremely hard to achieve or wildly impractical. We have a very clear example right next door of the viability of rapid change. If Scotland can do it, so can Ireland.

But we have to start with the obvious question: why are the Scottish and Irish records so starkly different? The answer has nothing to do with resources and everything to do with leadership. One country has been well led on climate change, the other – to put it very charitably – has not.

Looking at the Scottish experience, five things stand out in defining the way this good leadership expressed itself. These are the things an incoming Irish government should copy and paste.

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon meets Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Government Buildings in Dublin in October 2017. Photograph: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty

1. Pride

First, Scotland took pride in setting itself a big challenge. People are motivated by thrilling new possibilities, not by grudging concessions. While Ireland set the bar low and failed abjectly to clear it, Scotland’s leaders deliberately chose a target high enough to excite their citizens.

As Andrew Kerr, executive director of the Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, told the Citizens’ Assembly in Dublin in 2017: “Political vision and leadership in putting forward a challenging target, and corralling the resources and narrative around delivering that target, was as important for setting the framework for tackling climate change as robust evidence that it was achievable.”

The dominant tone on climate change from Irish governments has been negative – this is bad stuff we are being forced to do because we had to sign all these international agreements.

Even now, action on the single most important question facing humanity is framed negatively. It is not climate change that “threatens rural Ireland”, for example – it is the action needed to prevent it. The Scots decided to tell themselves a different story: we can do this. Ireland’s story has never got beyond: do we really have to do this?

Ironically, one of the reasons for this may be that Scotland has been debating national independence. The idea of a big collective project, a practical expression of national willpower, fed into – and was in turn fed by – a desire on the part of Scots to prove to themselves that they could achieve big things together.

Ireland, with a century of independence behind it, seems to have lost that collective desire. If we are to get serious about climate change we will have to find it again.

2. Monitoring

Second, having set these ambitious targets, the Scots had rigorous independent monitoring and analysis of how they were doing. Measuring how things were progressing became, in Kerr’s words, “a normal part of parliamentary debate and engagement, involving extensive consideration each year”.

Scotland was a pioneer in developing rigorous systems of monitoring and evaluation, with annual reporting to parliament and a major assessment of progress by a fully independent body every two years.

Ireland, by contrast, did not even pass a Climate Change Act until 2015 – six years after the Scottish Parliament did so. The EPA monitors emissions and there is now a very capable Climate Change Advisory Council.

But “advisory” is the key word. Irish governments are very good at ignoring advice they don’t want to hear. There is no effective mechanism for holding government departments or public bodies accountable for meeting specific targets in specific time frames.

Scotland has had very strong civil society engagement on climate change

As the Oireachtas climate change committee recommended last year, the “advisory council” needs to be replaced by a powerful “action council”, which will, among other things, produce five-year carbon budgets. It must have its own statutory multi-annual funding to ensure its independence.

But these changes need to be part of a much bigger transformation of the official mindset. Behind those appalling increases in emissions from transport, for example, is an inability to link the way we plan urban development to climate change.

If you make housing unaffordable in the big cities, you force people to commute long distances. If you don’t invest sufficiently in public transport, commuting is done in cars that emit greenhouse gases. Ireland has ended up with one vehicle for every two people (including children) and we now drive nearly 50 billion km a year.

3. No trade-off

Third, the Scots refused to frame the whole question as a trade-off between the environment and the economy. Perhaps because Scotland was already a major oil producer, it was primed to think of the development of renewable energy as a huge economic opportunity.

Scotland sought successfully to attract investment into these new energy sources. Doing the right thing could also be credibly presented as a strategy for economic growth.

In Ireland, by contrast, the issues are largely framed in terms of reductions in activity – cutting the excessively large national beef herd, for example. Good leadership should articulate the benefits of replacing expensively imported oil and gas, creating new jobs and developing new technologies.

4. Ownership

The fourth thing the Scots have been good at is fostering a sense of community ownership. This is not just a matter of encouraging and supporting local communities in developing their own energy projects. It is also about literal ownership.

The Scottish government set a target for 500 megawatts of locally owned energy generation facilities by 2020. It has already exceeded this and reset the target to 1,000 megawatts. Profits from these projects return to the communities who can then decide how best to invest the money. Unsurprisingly, planning objections to wind farms are much rarer in Scotland than in Ireland.

5. Engagement

Fifth, Scotland has had very strong civil society engagement on climate change. It has not been an issue only for environmental activists. Churches, trade unions, scientists and business leaders pushed for the more ambitious targets to be adopted and met.

Business groups like the Scottish Whisky Association have pushed hard on the benefits of Scotland being seen globally as a clean, green place. Builders switched to constructing timber-framed houses, which are both more environmentally friendly and a good fit with large-scale forestry planting.

Absence of leadership

We don’t have to look very far, therefore, to see what good leadership looks like. Generate a sense of national purpose. Set up rigorous monitoring of, and accountability for, very specific targets. Embrace the economic opportunities. Give communities ownership. Keep civil society and businesses engaged.

But none of this is going to happen in Ireland if adapting to climate change is approached through the usual miasma of grudge and grievance. Or if we fail to understand that the economy cannot be restarted after the coronavirus crisis – it must be reimagined. Or if meeting our international obligations is framed as a concession by the “mainstream” to the Green Party rather than a collective challenge for government, society and the economy.

The absence of leadership emerged in the recent Sign of the Times 2020 study as the biggest factor in public disheartenment about Irish responses to climate change. Part of the problem, though, seemed to be that people were looking for saintly figures like David Attenborough to lead them. There won't be any in the next Irish government.

But leadership doesn’t need to be saintly. It needs to be challenging, rigorous, accountable and decisive. If people can’t manage to meet those standards, they shouldn’t be in government at all. If they can, this is the time to show it.