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Michael McDowell: Does State need to lead fight against climate change?

Difference between ambitious and less so targets for planet almost insignificant

The Government’s climate legislation now progressing through the Houses of the Oireachtas is trumpeted by its proposers and in particular by Green Party supporters as one of the “most ambitious” legislative instruments in any democracy.

It is claimed that the terms of the legislation will bind future governments to achieving reductions in greenhouse gases and consumption of hydrocarbons and, in addition, will impose on all organs of the State a clear duty to comply with the ambitious requirements of carbon budgets submitted by the government of the day to the Oireachtas for approval.

This sounds very worthy. The impression is given that Ireland is going to be at the forefront of the developed democracies in achieving climate change goals.

Am I alone in thinking that the rhetoric of climate control is disturbingly aspirational and vague?

Practically no one has articulated the reservation that it may not make sense for Ireland to be in the frontline of the international climate change drive. There is another way of looking at our national interest. Given the almost insignificant difference in terms of the planet’s future that a choice between ambitious and less ambitious climate change targets will make, there is an argument that we should not aspire to be at the front of the peloton but that we should, like some team riders in the Tour de France, be content to have a comfortable and less demanding place in the chasing pack.


While China is still building new coal fire stations at home and across the world, and while many developing countries simply cannot afford to make the necessary changes to their industry, agriculture and infrastructure, if we are honest with ourselves we should acknowledge that being the best pupils in the class should not be an end in itself.

Blithe assurance

To take one example, we are being warned by experts that our electrical power system is at risk and that the electricity infrastructure is buckling under the pressure of growing demand. At the same time, we are planning to close down electricity generation based on the consumption of hydrocarbons.

The Green Party blithely assures us that we can aim for 100 per cent renewable electricity generation. We know that hydro-electric generating capacity is very close to geographical limits already. We also know that wind-powered generation needs to be supplemented by other more reliable generating capacity in order to ensure a constant level of supply. We are busily outlawing further exploration for natural gas in Irish territorial waters. But are we building, or indeed planning to build, sufficient wind-powered electricity generation capacity as things stand? Can we afford to build more data centres?

Will trucks, construction machinery and all other off-road vehicles be capable of electrification?

Is onshore and offshore planned wind power actually going to materialise? Is any form of solar-powered energy likely to make Ireland a place where electricity thereby generated will be available in reliable and economic quantities? Recently there has been controversy about the building of LNG importation facilities in Ireland. The Minister responsible for our climate change programme, Eamon Ryan, has refused to rule out nuclear generation as part of our further national energy infrastructure.

Vague rhetoric

Am I alone in thinking that the rhetoric of climate control is disturbingly aspirational and vague? For the responsible minister to confine himself of the proposition that he will not rule out nuclear energy is hardly reassuring. Do the boffins who specialise in predicting our energy requirements secretly acknowledge among themselves that we will have to go nuclear? Why are we left in a green miasma of vagueness on this issue?

I am always suspicious of a government that makes commitments which will not be realised in its own lifetime. It is very easy to backload the pain and cost of policy proposals to the next political generation or at least to the next few governments. At the same time, a five-year horizon for climate change policy makes no sense at all.

Take the commitment to have all cars powered by electricity from 2030 onwards. Exactly how much is the relevant infrastructure going to cost? Will every pavement in every city at which cars are now parked feature charging outlets? How long will it take for existing petrol and diesel cars to be phased out once a ban is introduced on their manufacture and sale? Is the case made that accelerated scrapping of petrol and diesel cars makes ecological sense in terms of recycling and reusing the existing vehicle fleet? Will trucks, construction machinery and all other off-road vehicles be capable of electrification? Or will we need to create hydrogen-powered vehicles? Who will finance it?

Two other issues need real national debate. Does it make sense for Ireland to reduce its cattle herds when we enjoy a comparative advantage over many other European countries in meat production?

And have we the slightest chance of meeting the Government’s forestry targets which appear to be fictional?