Ireland’s radical plan could stave off worst climate outcome

Bruton’s move is ambitious but we must all engage as citizens to save our planet

We are hurtling towards a climate breakdown. Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 415 parts per million for the first time in human history in May. This is higher than we’ve seen since the Pliocene epoch –between three and five million years ago – when sea levels surged to between five and 40m above today’s levels.

It is now inevitable that our children will live on a radically altered planet, but we can still stave off the worst consequences. Ireland, which has up to now ranked among the EU's worst offenders, finally has a climate plan commensurate with the urgency of this challenge.

Successive Irish governments fiddled while the world burned but, on Monday, Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton did something remarkable. He coaxed the administrative system to produce a radical plan, which, if implemented, will transform the country from laggard to leader.

This did not happen in a vacuum. The Minister was responding to international pressure, much of it emanating from the EU, which has become increasingly disgruntled with Ireland. At home, momentum was generated by the work of the Citizens' Assembly, by a remarkable cross-party report produced by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action in March, and by our striking children, who have jolted us from complacency.


Nevertheless, this is still a case of right Minister, right time, right plan. His plan performs radical surgery on how decisions are made. In the past, government departments decided which climate actions to propose themselves. This generated a lot of finger-pointing between departments, but not much ambition and even less action, leaving Ireland completely off-course.

Solutions vs excuses

This process will now be inverted. Key departments – agriculture, transport, energy – who have always had a financial budget will now also have a carbon budget for every five-year period. This budget will be set by the Minister, based on advice from a beefed-up Climate Action Council of independent experts. Budgets must be consistent with long-term targets. If implemented, this will make departments responsible for finding creative solutions, not excuses. It is based on the UK’s approach, which has driven rapid decarbonisation and is a model of best practice.

Key departments – agriculture, transport, energy – who have always had a financial budget will now also have a carbon budget for every five-year period

What about ambition? As recently as 2017, the Government published a climate plan that envisaged Ireland missing its 2030 target by tens of millions of tons. We planned to fail. Last year, the National Development Plan closed the gap, but it still left us well off-course. By contrast, the new plan – if implemented – would bring us into full compliance with our EU objective, without recourse to purchasing carbon credits. In the longer term, it puts on a trajectory to "net zero" emissions by 2050, in line with the most clean, green and ambitious countries and regions in the world: the UK, Sweden and California.

Oversight and transparent reporting by a delivery board, overseen by the Department of the Taoiseach, makes implementation more likely.

Ambitious new timetables for the uptake of electric vehicles, retrofitting of homes and deployment of renewable energy have been set. Renewable energy, for example, will make up 70 per cent of all energy generated within 12 years, more than double the current level. Crucially, there will be opportunities for local households and communities to get involved in renewable projects.

As the plan acknowledges, we need to deeply retrofit tens of thousands of homes every year, and it proposes innovative approaches to make this happen. This is a tough nut to crack, with many countries, not least the UK, trying and failing. We must be patient, welcome policy experimentation, and forgive the inevitable setbacks along the way.

Protect the vulnerable

The plan envisages a carbon tax increasing to €80 per ton by 2030, as proposed by the Climate Council. Many will eagerly await Budget 2020 for the first step, with last year’s budget last-minute reversal still fresh in many minds. The key is to ensure that the vulnerable are protected. Revenue could be used to increase benefits, reduce income taxes, support retrofits or to directly pay each household a “carbon dividend”.

Opposition from vested interests should be anticipated and political resolve will be regularly tested

The coal and peat industries will be phased out in the near term, while oil imports will be radically reduced. We also need to transition from beef farming to more environmentally sustainable uses of land, although the plan is silent on this topic. Job churn will arise as new green industries replace polluting ones. The plan commits to manage this dislocation under a “just transition” framework, by supporting communities that are negatively affected and retraining workers. Nevertheless, opposition from vested interests should be anticipated, and political resolve will be regularly tested.

For this reason, a vocal and engaged citizenry is essential. Students need to keep making noise, concerned parents must continue speaking out, and voters need to reward politicians who see the big picture.

This is an excellent plan, a plan to believe in. But it is important to recall that plans themselves, no matter how well-intentioned, do not reduce pollution. It will be judged successful only when emissions begin falling instead of rising.

We must also recall that global emissions surged to a new high in 2018, with only the EU doing its part. Ireland must use this urgent plan as a platform for its climate diplomacy. Together with our EU partners, we must work tirelessly to make the big polluters take notice.

Joseph Curtin is senior fellow for climate policy at the Institute of International and European Affairs and a member of the Government's Climate Change Advisory Council. Views expressed are the author's alone