Reflections on the ‘Programme for Partnership Government’
In the run up to the last election, Charles Stanley Smith, a leading member of An Taisce wrote an Environmentalist’s view of the requirements of a new Government, which would be included in their Programme for Government [Note 1].
The key message was that the Government must understand that we cannot hope to achieve a sufficient level of prosperity, if we continue to degrade our environment. A healthy environment is the foundation on which a prosperous and democratic society is built. Looking forward to the next century the greatest challenges we face are the global environmental crises of climate change, biodiversity loss (the complicated interlinked ‘nature’ that supports all our lives) and unsustainable resource use. The scale and urgency of these challenges require a green revolution and this must be clearly be prioritised in the Programme for Government.
Does the new ‘Programme for a Partnership Government’ (PfG) meet any of these requirements?
I’m afraid that I cannot see any evidence in the Programme for Government that our elected leaders have grasped the seriousness of the man made environmental crises we face. In order to prevent a ‘dystopian future’ all Government decisions must be aligned with the best scientific advice and commensurate with the scale and urgency of the threats we face.
The PfG states they will change ‘Irish environmental policy’ to chart the course towards a low carbon future.
This is a wonderful aim to have but at no stage does the PfG show an understanding of the absolute need to change all policies to achieve complete decarbonisation by 2050 within a very limited total carbon budget, which has to mean hitting the emission brakes hard, starting now.
Despite many well-meaning warnings over the last 30 years, globally we have achieved only a huge increase in annual emissions and carbon intensity improvements have stalled over the past decade as the rich world, with it’s higher environmental standards, has happily consumed goods produced by much dirtier energy systems. Only now in China, the life threatening air pollution caused by coal plants and serious concerns about climate change have caused a rethink in energy policy. The Paris Agreement was a great ‘political’ success, but with global temperatures already 1.35°C above pre-industrial, the PfG needs to tell us how our INDC (Intended Nationally Determined Contribution) is going to help the world achieve ‘targets’ of avoiding temperature increases of 1.5°C or worse, 2.0°C. What is our, Ireland, Europe, The World’s, total carbon budget - the finite amount of carbon which can be emitted while staying within the agreed temperature threshold - for the next 34 years? Unless we agree that we are not on any pathway to success.
The section on ‘Addressing long-term Challenges’ (p 20) has merits but Climate Change is no longer a distant threat. It is a current issue which is destabilizing governments, undermining development and driving greater disparity between the rich and the poor. Climate action is a moral imperative and a social necessity for this government and our generation.
The section on Climate Change (p 121-130) talks of Ireland becoming a global leader at a time when the EPA has once again reported that we are going to miss our agreed EU 2020 climate targets by a large margin and that “Current and planned policies and measures are not sufficient to meet the 2020 target”. Further they say “New obligations for Ireland to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the years 2021-2030 are being negotiated at EU level in 2016. The further away Ireland is from the 20% reduction target in 2020, the more difficult the compliance challenges in the following decade are likely to become”. The EPA also report that our ETS sector CO₂ is also increasing [Notes 2 & 3]. Major changes in direction for Ireland’s economic and societal focus are needed now.
Missing our EU 2020 emissions and renewables targets is likely to lead to hundreds of millions in EU fines. But, far more challenging, in order to give the next generations some chance, we need to decarbonise by 2050, that means starting real cuts now on a carbon budget-limited pathway that reaches zero around 2050. Missing the EU 2020 targets puts us far off track for a 2050 decarbonisation target.
The EPA predict that “Transport emissions are projected to show strong growth over the period to 2020 with a 10 - 16% increase on 2014 levels” [Note 2]. The PfG’s ‘Climate Change’ section calls for a ‘cost effective policy platform for reducing emissions and increasing energy efficiency across all transport modes’, however the sections on the European Ten-T Transport funding (p44), Road Investment (p44) and Regional Airports (p46) run totally counter to that aim, though they are talking of the Western Rail Corridor, its chances are poor in the face of the envisaged road expansion.
There is also a call for new measures to ‘incentivise and upgrade older goods vehicles’ but no call for Europe to introduce measures to ensure the better CO₂ performance of European trucks. They also need to show real support for rural transport (page 50) and fund the existing national transport co-ordination units to provide integrated services in their areas.
The other sectors in our EU2020 targets are “Home Heating”, there is good work being undertaken and proposed in retrofitting but the annual targets for the number of houses retrofitted needs to be at least 100,000 to make the necessary impact. There seems to be little understanding of the very large job potential in retrofitting that number of houses per annum and the possibilities of eliminating fuel poverty, without having to grant aid fossil fuels. In the Climate Section on ‘Built Environment’ they refer to the role of energy efficiency but under Planning Reform (Page 28) they state they ‘will conduct a review of nationwide building standards’, I trust that this will not involve in a drop in their energy standards, especially as Michael Bennet in Wexford has shown you can build and sell Passive Houses at commercial costs [Note 4]
Agriculture is the other major reason that we will miss our 2020 targets and that is mainly from methane (CH₄) and nitrous oxide, extremely potent greenhouse gases (GHGs) produced by our expanding dairy and beef herds. Global temperatures are directly related to the amounts of GHGs in our atmosphere, which are now at a record high and continuing to rise. Carbon Dioxide (CO₂) as a result of us burning fossil fuels for heating, transport and electricity generation has the biggest effect. Once emitted CO₂ steadily accumulates in the atmosphere causing global warming that is irreversible on human timescales. Methane is reckoned to be between 25 and 80 times more efficient at trapping heat than CO₂ and cattle and other ruminants emit large amounts of Methane. Methane does not remain in the atmosphere for as long as CO₂ but the flow of emissions must be reduced rapidly in order to provide an environment for the next generations to have a chance of some form of ‘well ordered’ future, the GHGs that we put into the atmosphere right now are critical.
Agriculture is a provider of jobs and exports, but remember that the EPA state “For the period 2014-2020, agriculture emissions are projected to increase by 6 - 7%.” [Note 2]. Ireland is a net importer of ‘Food Calories’ (we are not ‘feeding the world’) and of large amounts of fertilizer. As well as the direct GHG effects, agriculture, water and waste-water treatment and fertilizer production all rely heavily on energy. The Programme for Government is heavily reliant on ‘sustainability audit systems’ that measure the ‘on farm’ sustainability without counting up total national emissions of pollutants. Even with those in place, we are going to miss our 2020 targets.
The PfG is calling for more afforestation as a means of providing a ‘carbon sink value’ – this is a poorly thought out strategy that will drive the collapse of biodiversity in our uplands. What’s more the ‘marginal’ land which is targeted for afforestation is in many cases a greater carbon sink than the plantations that will replace it. In order to facilitate the ongoing expansion of the dairy sector our uplands and the communities and wildlife that live there will be replaced with lifeless blocks of sitka spruce. This approach runs counter to our legal obligations to halt biodiversity loss and is made all the more ridiculous by the fact that the emissions released from the ongoing destruction of our bogs will cancel out any potential carbon sink accrued in forestry. There is also the competition for land use between food production, forestry and biomass.
Further, any biomass needs to be utilised based on strictly observed sustainability criteriaand preferably locally produced. The EU though is falsely counting all biomass for energy as carbon-neutral when using whole trees for pellets means that it can take 40 to 100 years for new trees to recapture the carbon lost by burning it. The UK’s conversion of its Drax power station to biomass is using unsustainable biomass, especially from clearing forests in the south-eastern USA. The plans to import biomass to Ireland for energy are similarly compromised by unsustainability and even locally grown biomass must meet strict sustainability criteria if used for energy.
The commitment to Anaerobic Digestion (Biogas) is good as this does have the potential for energy production and waste utilisation.
The PfG ignores has again side stepped the peat problem. Parish politics has once again trumped the long term national interest as we seem set to continue to ignore and worse subsidise the destruction of our bogs. Ireland’s bogs are among the rarest habitats in the country and our greatest ‘carbon sink’. The Government's plan to allow their annihilation is probably the clearest indication of where priorities lie and how seriously we really take issues like biodiversity loss and climate change.
Part of the plan to deal with flooding must address the issue on a catchment scale and that will involve the cross societal cooperation. Farmers will be the key stakeholders in any approach to effective flood management. The rewetting of Bord na Móna bogs offers the opportunity to restore highly degraded landscapes while also redirecting flood water away from communities. The role of the ESB and Bord na Móna in the management of the Shannon system in particular needs to be reassessed.
I welcome the actions for Farmers in Restricted Areas(page 114): “Some farmers are working in challenging conditions in mountainous or disadvantaged areas. These farmers will be supported by a new Government and will be given priority access to agri-environment schemes like GLAS. A number of Locally Led Agri-Environment Schemes (LLAES), which will target habitats such as the hen harrier, pearl mussel, Burren, along with other locally led schemes which address specific environmental concerns, will be rolled out, supporting farmers operating in restricted areas.” However these measures do not go far enough to readdress years of government neglect. The government must consider increasing ANC payments, removing the cap on GLAS and stepping in to guarantee that gap years in agri-environmental schemes do not recur.
I welcome the PfG’s call for a ‘National Dialogue on Climate Change’ because in the run up to the last election there was no mention of Climate Change in the debate. The explanation by politicians, was nobody on the doorstep talked to us about Climate Change therefore it must not be important. Maybe they should have gone to the Primary Schools, where as part of the 1916 Centenary celebration, primary and post-primary schools were invited to write a Proclamation for a New Generation. 970 schools uploaded their reinvention of the emerging state’s blueprint to scoil.ie, providing us with an extraordinary insight into the values, ideals and hopes of the children of 2016. An Taisce's Climate Change Office analysed these. Equality, Environment & Climate Change, Education, Health and Homelessness are by far the most pronounced, recurring themes. The subject of environment and climate change is exemplary in showing the disparity between the attitudes of children and the actions of Ireland. [Note 5]
There are areas of hope for development and rural development. “we want to attract people back into main streets and town centres” (page 27) using regeneration schemes, extending the living city initiatives and taxing vacant sites. Though, I believe that Site Value Tax is a fairer way of dealing with vacant sites, Commercial Rates and Household Property Tax.
Urban sprawl and communities without proper planned services cause excessive car usage and difficulties in providing proper transport services. I hope that statements like these means that the Government will fight urban sprawl and truly plan for integrated walkable communities (page 28) “We will promote higher urban densities in terms of housing design, particularly in public transport corridors, through a new National Planning Framework to replace the National Spatial Strategy, to be finalised by the first quarter of 2017.” (Year 1 Action)
There is much talk through the document of ‘Community Consultation’ though little of Community Participation. The last Government introduced the ‘Public Participation Networks’, which having gone through a rocky start are beginning to provide a means of ‘Public Participation’. However there is still a considerable requirement for capacity building of community groups, especially if they are to be ‘consulted with’ at every turn.
There are sections ensuring that Irish SMEs can get fully involved in Government procurement, but no mention of the idea of the Government pushing ‘Green’ procurement and looking at environmental costs in the selection process.
Finally, the belief that we can continue to achieve indefinite economic growth on a finite planet has no basis in reality. We must recognise the finite and fragile nature of our planet and adjust our policies to reflect this. Only by shifting to a sustainable development strategy can we lay the foundations for a just and prosperous society for current and future generations. This will obviously not be easy but it is clear that the best way to achieve this green revolution is to work in partnership with the international community. Abiding to our legally binding obligation to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss would be a good place to start. Maybe the Government should study ‘Laudato Si’, the Pope’s encyclical, which outlines causes and remedies for these crises.
Charles Stanley-Smith Dromineer
- An Taisce - Some Environmental thoughts for the 2016 General Election http://www.antaisce.org/articles/some-environmental-thoughts-for-the-2016-general-election
- EPA – Ireland projected to miss its EU greenhouse gas emission reduction targets http://epa.ie/newsandevents/news/pressreleases2016/name,59044,en.html
- EPA - Greenhouse gas emissions from Ireland’s ETS sector increased in 2015, EPA reports http://epa.ie/newsandevents/news/name,59180,en.html
- €170k Wexford passive semis launch – with free heat & hot water https://passivehouseplus.ie/news/projects/low-cost-wexford-passive-scheme-launches-with-free-heat-hot-water
- An Taisce - Children ask for climate action...Will we deliver? http://www.antaisce.org/articles/children-ask-for-climate-actionwill-we-deliver