Can Denis Naughten avoid being ‘Minister of Greenwash and Carbon Extraction’?
A week ago, Denis Naughten was to be the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources, the new name at least suggesting that the new Government intends to take climate change seriously., But the new Government somehow thought omitting ‘Environment’ from any and all departments was a good idea, at least until a protest petition, led by NGOs including An Taisce and Friends of the Earth, rapidly gained over 10,000 signatures.
In a speedy and appropriate response Minister Naughten announced the new ministry title would be the Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment”. Who wants to be Minister for Climate Change? Charles Stanley-Smith, An Taisce’s spokesperson says:
“We welcome a politics able to reverse poor decisions. Strong environmental and climate change policies are critical to our future societal and economic well-being. Minister Naughten could achieve meaningful climate action first within his own Department by ensuring that the Natural Resources division, would rapidly ramp down fossil fuel exploration plans.”
On Tuesday, speaking at a launch event for the Local Authority Climate Change Adaptation Strategy Guidelines, Minister Naughten said that “climate change is THE global challenge of our generation”.
On Wednesday, a press release announced “Minister Naughten calls for practical, people-centred approach to climate action” and quoted him as saying:
“Only by bringing people with us – not just with the scientific evidence, not just with the policy, but with practical pathways that have people at its centre – can we move this agenda towards a decarbonised future.”
By Thursday though, as one of the first actions from within this new Climate Action & Environment department, Minister of State for Natural Resources, Seán Kyne T.D., awarded eleven companies with petroleum exploration licenses giving rights to drill in Irish Atlantic waters. Kyne is quoted as saying, “At a time of very low oil prices, the strong interest in the Round is very positive”.
And on Friday, Minister Naughten launched an Engineers Ireland report saying “the over-dependence on fossil fuels challenges all of us to work together to find a balanced and sustainable energy mix”. Bizarrely, the report calls for cuts in transport emissions while including a call for rapid completion of the proposed new runway for Dublin Airport that will inevitably result in increased aviation emissions, Climate action cannot mean making a few minor emissions savings in one area while continuing to build high carbon infrastructure, and spending cost savings from ‘efficiency’ on yet more emissions. No. We need a plan that adds up.
Minister Naughten is right that people need to be informed and included in climate decision-making to achieve a pathway to a decarbonised future. But he also must know that urgent, tough political decisions are needed to divert from business-as-usual, high emissions from energy and agriculture, and instead move to a rapid transition to zero carbon energy and low impact food production and diets.
Burning peat and coal for electricity – or, even worse, using first-generation biofuels and most biomass – are simply unacceptable given Ireland’s Paris Agreement signature to ensure science- and equity-aligned climate action. Further fossil fuel exploration, fracking and new runways for more aviation are similarly entirely contrary to any credible claim of ‘climate action’.
Charles Stanley-Smith, speaking for An Taisce, said:
"To achieve climate action Denis Naughten will need to show the kind of leadership that past Ministers have shown in enabling the smoking ban, taxing litter-causing plastic bags and banning bituminous coal. All of these seemed unachievable and not politically feasible until a Minister showed courage, leadership and a commitment to environmental well-being."
The question now for Minister Naughten is: Are the fine words, name-changes and supposed ambition of the last week just yet more vested interest-driven government rhetoric aiming to divert media and public attention from business-as-usual policies. Or, does he have the political qualities – within Cabinet, in his Department and with the public – to begin the very rapid societal changes now needed to achieve urgent, substantial and sustained reductions in Ireland’s climate pollutant emissions. The choice is hypocrisy or achievement, with results judged simply enough by the real and projected trajectory of reported total annual emissions.
Climate action in Ireland is long overdue, but it is possible with collective action involving us all. Some leadership would make a change. Maybe, just maybe, Denis Naughten is up to the job.