Programme for government offers credible green pathway

Meeting carbon emissions reduction target will require transformational change

The programme for government contains a commitment to an average 7 per cent per year reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030. Photograph: John Giles/PA Wire

The programme for government contains a commitment to an average 7 per cent per year reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030. Photograph: John Giles/PA Wire

 

The programme for government is by some distance the most environmentally progressive such programme in the history of the State.

The document is not perfect. Some commitments could have been stronger and some of the language could have been more precise. Nonetheless, if implemented it could put Ireland on a significantly more sustainable trajectory.

There is no guarantee that an alternative coalition, either before or after another general election, would be more environmentally orientated. Indeed, there are good reasons to suspect the opposite might be the case.

The commitment to an average 7 per cent per year reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030 has to be measured against last year’s Climate Action Plan which committed to a 2 per cent average annual reduction.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be likened to turning a tanker. Some actions will yield quick wins. Other decisions will take significantly longer to contribute

The pathway towards achieving this reduction is to be set out in two five-year carbon budgets – caps on total emissions – covering the years 2021-2025 and 2026-2030. The programme doesn’t put numbers on these budgets. They are to be elaborated under a process set out in a new climate law.

The programme indicates that more of the heavy lifting will be done in the second half of the decade. Anxiety around this is understandable. After all, we don’t know what government will be in place in the second half of the decade.

But reducing greenhouse gas emissions can be likened to turning a tanker. Some actions will yield quick wins. Other decisions, such as large-scale investment in public transport infrastructure or development of offshore wind energy, will take significantly longer to contribute.

For this reason there is a sound rationale for limited backloading of emissions reductions this decade. To be clear, this is not an excuse to do nothing until 2025. Important – and expensive – decisions would have to be taken during the lifetime of the next government.

Under the model to be set out in the new climate law, an incoming government would set both the 2021-2025 and 2026-2030 carbon budgets. Might a new government repeal the climate law or simply ignore the carbon budgets set by its predecessor? Possibly, but this would be more difficult and politically costly to do so than if the targets were non-statutory declarations of intent.

The UK’s experience is noteworthy. It pioneered the approach of setting legally-binding carbon budgets more than a decade in advance. Despite what can generously be described as turbulent political circumstances in recent years, successive UK governments have not unpicked the carbon budgets set by their predecessors.

Another concern regarding the 7 per cent target relates to the treatment of methane emitted by ruminant animals. The document notes the “special economic and social role of agriculture . . . and the distinct characteristics of biogenic methane”.

Fears that agriculture would be exempted completely are allayed by the statement that “every sector will contribute” to meeting the overall target. This opens the door to something akin to New Zealand’s approach, under which separate numerical reduction targets apply to the agricultural sector.

Legally-binding targets are important, but Ireland’s carbon-reduction targets will be achieved only if concrete measures are implemented across economy and society. Achieving an average 7 per cent reduction over the course of the decade will require transformational change.

Not surprisingly, the programme is stronger in some areas than others. Some of what is included largely repeats previous commitments, but in other areas bold, ambitious, specific new commitments have been set out.

Among the most transformational commitments relate to transport. Transport infrastructure spending is to be split two to one between new public-transport infrastructure and new roads.

Walking and cycling infrastructure are to be allocated 10 per cent each of the transport capital budget, €1 million per day across both categories. This welcome reorientation away from a singular focus on electric vehicles aligns with international best practice.

A commitment to end the granting of new licences for exploration and extraction of gas and to cancel the planned Shannon LNG terminal won’t shift Ireland away from fossil fuels, but they send an important signal to the world.

In agriculture, farmers are to be incentivised to adopt more sustainable practices. Some of this will be driven by developments at European Union level. A national land-use review is to inform all relevant government decisions.

The forthcoming successor strategy to Food Wise 2025 is promised to focus on environmental protection, reversing biodiversity loss and developing additional market opportunities for Irish producers closer to home.

Whether this will be sufficient is hard to judge because we do not yet know how precisely emissions from agriculture will be counted towards Ireland’s overall target. Many of the commitments to protect Ireland’s biodiversity seem more aspirational and less concrete.

The scale of the transformation required means that it will fail if justice and citizen engagement are not placed at the centre of the transition

There is a commitment to increasing the carbon tax to €100 per tonne of CO2 by 2030, up from €80 announced previously. A precise trajectory of yearly increases is set out, which is important in giving certainty to businesses and citizens.

The revenue from these increases, estimated at €9.5 billion over the next 10 years, is to be ring-fenced for targeted social welfare measures, a national retrofitting programme and incentives for more sustainable farm practices.

The commitments to just transition and societal engagement could have gone further and will require further elaboration. The scale of the transformation required means that it will fail if justice and citizen engagement are not placed at the centre of the transition.

Any programme for government is a declaration of intent, and requires perseverance and political will. This one has been framed in particularly inauspicious circumstances. It provides an ambitious, albeit incomplete, roadmap to a more sustainable future.

Diarmuid Torney is an associate professor in the school of law and government at Dublin City University

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