Programme for Government: A timely boost for climate action in Ireland
The newly published Programme for Government has been welcomed by An Taisce as a significant breakthrough on climate and environmental action.
The programme, agreed between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party after weeks of negotiations, delivers on the need to place climate action at the heart of the incoming Government. This, after almost a decade of neglect and drift, is hugely significant.
It puts in place the building blocks for Ireland to rapidly transition to a low-carbon economy and sets out a pathway to at last fulfill our binding obligations under the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
At the heart of this new programme is the commitment to an average 7% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021-2030. However, it is worrying that the programme does not commit to meet this target over the lifetime of the 33rd Dáil, suggesting instead that steps be put in place which will ‘lead to reductions in the second carbon budget (2026-2030) period’. The 32nd Dáil unanimously declared a climate emergency, it would seem there is still resistance to acting as if we grasp the meaning of the term ‘emergency’.
While strongly welcoming the commitment to 7% annual emissions cuts this decade, An Taisce is concerned that the deliberate vagueness of the terminology could see this incoming Government’s resolve eroded, as special interest lobbies seek to water down its provisions and stymie its impacts. This programme itself does not commit to any specific emissions cuts target during its lifetime (2021-2025).
In 2010, the Scottish government set an ambitious goal to cut emissions by 42% by 2020. However, Scotland exceeded its 2020 targets four years ahead of time, in 2016 - a performance the UN’s climate change secretary described as “exemplary”. Only ambitious, politically courageous action on this scale will move Ireland beyond the category of laggard when it comes to climate action.
Confirmation of a complete ban on all new offshore gas as well as oil drilling is to be applauded, as is the incoming government’s commitment to ban all imported fracked gas and the scrapping of the ill-advised Shannon LNG terminal project. These measures are simply common sense, in view of the scientific consensus on the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel usage globally.
The commitment to a 10-fold increase in the national retrofitting programme is also very significant, with the target of bringing at least 500,000 Irish homes up to a minimum B2 standard this decade. This will mean huge reductions in home heating costs for citizens, who can look forward to living in warmer, cleaner and healthier homes.
An Taisce also welcomes the commitment to introducing a climate action Bill into the Dáil within 100 days. Its enforcement of five-year sectoral carbon budgets is exactly what is required, but we have major concerns that the bill’s only concrete emissions target, to fully decarbonise the Irish economy by 2050, is set decades too far into the future.
The proposal that the Oireachtas establishes a standing Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, with powers similar to the Public Accounts Committee, is to be welcomed, as is the commitment to scrap the existing Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) and replace it with a Climate Action Council ‘on an independent statutory footing and ensure greater gender balance and increased scientific expertise in its membership’. These steps need to be prioritised.
It has been clear for some time that, in addition to gender imbalance, there are not enough physical scientists (and zero environmental specialists) on the CCAC, so we hope these egregious deficiencies will be addressed when the new Climate Action Council is established.
The incoming government’s commitment to add at least 5GW of offshore wind power to the grid by 2030 is to be welcomed, but An Taisce feel this lacks radical ambition, given the programme also states ‘a potential of at least 30GW of offshore floating wind power’ is possible in deeper Atlantic waters. Ireland can and must pitch itself as a major exporter of clean energy, a product for which there is abundant and unlimited demand among our EU and British neighbours.
Major and sustained emissions cuts can only be achieved in the wake of modal shifts away from high-emissions systems, and in this light, An Taisce is delighted to see the new government’s commitment to cycling and pedestrian projects to be set at 20% of the 2020 capital budget (€360 million) a year for the lifetime of the Government.
The upsurge in walking and especially cycling as a result of the slump in traffic in recent months has underlined that, once the public feel that roads are safe, tens of thousands more adults and children would choose to cycle to work and school.
The shift to safer cycling is not about helmets and high-vis vests. It’s about integrated protected cycle paths and sharply limiting vehicular access to city and town centres, which are then likely to flourish, as has been shown time after time once streets are pedestrianised. Promised financial support for e-bikes and cargo bikes is also to be welcomed.
Arguably the weakest part of the programme relates to agriculture and food. This sector contributes over one third of Ireland’s total emissions, yet there is no clear pathway set out to show how the agri-food sector will reduce, in absolute terms, its emissions in any meaningful way. The briefings offered by groups like Stop Climate Chaos, in advance of publication of this Programme, were clearly not taken into account despite clear messaging and the scientific basis underpinning the guidance. We welcome the distinction of natural biogenic emissions as set out by the IPCC in the programme, but this distinction will do nothing in terms of our need to reduce all GHG emissions quickly. It would seem that some oft-stated myths permeated the development of this segment of the programme.
Comprehensive public participation will be essential to deliver on this programme successfully. It is apparent that citizen engagement in the climate crisis has made its mark, with social movements such as Fridays For Future, the student marches and Extinction Rebellion playing a role in keeping climate on the public and political agenda. The government must now ensure that all voices are at the table to participate in the implementation of this programme.
An Taisce will be reviewing the Programme in more depth on an ongoing basis. For now, and with the reservations as noted above, we are pleased to welcome the Programme for Government as a major step in the right direction for Ireland.
John Gibbons, PRO, An Taisce Climate Committee (087-2332689)
Additional observations by Prof John Sweeney
On the 7% emissions reduction target:
- The commitment to a 51% reduction over the decade, if realised, would position Ireland as in agreement with the objectives of the EU New Green Deal. It remains to be seen whether a new Effort Sharing arrangement as part of this would ask for more or less than 51%. The probability is that it would be close to this figure.
- The reduction target is for overall greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, ETS emissions constitute 25% of total emission, but have been falling significantly in recent years. If this continues, a smaller reduction in non-ETS emissions will meet the target of 7% per annum. There is an element of injustice if one sector is obliged to carry the burden of emission reductions to facilitate another carrying on as Business As Usual.
- The 2050 target to be set in the Climate Action Bill will merely put into law what the EU New Green Deal requires. This can be achieved even within the parameters of the existing Climate and Low Carbon Development Act. What is crucial about the proposed new Bill is the allocation of 5-year budgets. The manner in which these will be allocated and the time frame over which they will be implemented is crucial to the success of the overall package. How will individual Departments interact with the Climate Action Council in deciding this? What sanctions will apply for sectors not meeting their target? Will targets be set on an annual ‘glide path’?
- The use of the term ‘biogenic methane’ is disturbing. The global atmosphere recognises no such distinction. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C finds that global emissions of methane must reduce by between 24-47% on 2010 levels by 2050 in order to limit climate change to 1.5C. There is unlikely to be any scenario whereby without an absolute reduction in Irish methane emissions the end product will be compatible with the 7% target.
- The implication is that reduction in the first 5-year budget period will not be fully realised until the second period (2026-2030) leaves a legacy to the next government and ignores the pathways existing e.g. through herd reduction to achieve the necessary reductions during the current government tenure. This is compounded by the delay in quantifying annual emission figures. The 2018 figures are all that are currently available, meaning that the 2025 performance will only be available in 2027. Backloading of the 7% commitment to the second half of this decade is not good and runs the risk of repeating the experience of the past when aspirations and commitments were not realised.
- Measures proposed to facilitate the 7% reduction are all sound and ambitious. Again, an annual ‘glide path’ is needed to ensure that e.g. 1,000 houses a week are retrofitted. Many of these reduction ideas are strategies, policy objectives and at this stage aspirational. They can be achieved, but require concrete budgetary allocations.
- Ambiguity exists around land use and especially wetlands, where cherry-picking is hinted at. The science of soil and other forms of sequestration must be rigidly adhered to. There is no justification, for example, for not including wetlands in a land use inventory starting from this year and we are obliged to count wetland emissions from 2026 anyway.