Ireland’s sensational climate plan

By Robert McLachlan

Ireland and New Zealand have a lot in common. Each has 5 million people. They are both scenic.

They both have a lot of cows. (New Zealand has 10 million, Ireland 7 million, both with rapidly intensified dairying.)

They are both windy.

They both play rugby.

They are both rich, although New Zealand is near the middle of the rich countries with national income of US$47,000 per person – the same as France and the UK – while Ireland is near the top at $67,000. They both run open, foreign-investment-friendly, low-tax economies, although Ireland really stands out on this one.

Of course, New Zealand is bigger than Ireland.

And for decades they have both talked a good talk on climate change while failing to reduce their emissions.

Ireland’s gross greenhouse gas emissions…
and New Zealand’s. ‘Energy’ is emissions from burning fossil fuels, ‘IPPU’ is industrial processes like manufacturing fertiliser and cement.

While New Zealand’s emissions, stuck on 80 million tonnes CO2e a year, are higher than Ireland’s at 60 million tonnes, the difference is mainly due to agriculture. Even so, Ireland’s agricultural emissions are themselves unusually high, and attempts to discuss them have run into the same roadblocks as in New Zealand.

As well as a traditional farming culture, we can think of the housing crisis, poor quality housing, a rural/urban divide, and inequality issues as roughly similar. In terms of addressing climate change, Ireland does face some extra difficulties: a lack of hydropower, and a lack of land for wind power, and slightly colder temperatures.

The 2020 election & the Programme for Government

The election in Ireland on 8 February 2020 delivered no clear winner. Coalition talks continued until June, when a 3-party coalition of the conservative Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parties together with the Green Party agreed an astonishing 126-page “Programme for Government“. Not only is it as long as a novel, just about every page consists of bullet points for action. This is the first national action plan that approaches what is required by the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The programme agrees to

  • Cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 7% per year, totalling 51% by 2030.

Although far bolder than any other country has yet managed or even envisaged, this is in fact what the whole world needs to achieve to limit global warming to 1.5ºC. The cuts are double what was already planned in 2019 by the outgoing Fine Gael government, and which were themselves already ambitious. They will require a rapid and complete revolution in electricity, housing quality, and transport, for starters.

A start has been made on electricity already, with renewable sources climbing from 7% in 2006 to 33% in 2018. The target is 70% in 2030. Ireland already has 4.2 GW of wind power, seven times as much as New Zealand, but they will need much, much more.

  • 10% of the entire transport budget will be reserved for cycling, and another 10% for walking.

The program includes pretty much everything a cycling advocate would dream of. For example: “Each local authority will be immediately mandated to carry out an assessment of their road network, to see where space can be reallocated for pedestrians and cyclists. This should be done immediately.” In addition, spending on new public transport will be double the spending on new roads. (For comparison, in New Zealand about 2% of the transport budget is spent on walking and cycling, and we are embarking on the largest program of new motorway construction in our history).

Ireland is also encouraging electric cars, bikes, and trucks. The target is for 950,000 EVs (out of a present fleet of 2.7 million vehicles) by 2030. Sales of fossil-fuels cars will be banned by 2030, and existing ones phased out from cities after that. This is ambitious: Ireland has just 9000 EVs. It’s going to require massive changes in the use and operation of cars.

  • The carbon tax, now €26 per tonne of CO2, and which last year was agreed to be increased to €80 by 2030, will now increase to €100.

That’s about what is needed in all countries to support the Paris Agreement. It led to lengthy disputes over what to do with the money raised, with the Green Party wanting it all returned to the public in a “fee and dividend” model. Instead, it goes to the government, but with some spending put towards “climate justice”: €1.5 billion for sustainable farming, €5 billion for retrofitting houses, and €3 billion to support a just transition – for example, to alleviate fuel poverty.

  • Grade B thermal upgrades to 500,000 houses by 2030, and switching the heating of 600,000 houses from natural gas to heat pumps. All new houses to be Grade A, or nearly zero energy.

In Ireland, houses are required to have a Building Energy Rating from A to G. Most existing stock is Grade C (a standard mid-2000s house) or D.

  • End the issue of new licenses for the exploration and extraction of gas, on the same basis as the recent decision in relation to oil exploration and extraction. Cancel the proposed LNG terminal.
  • Establish a Climate Action Council, which will advise the government on carbon budgets and policies. This will be introduced in the first 100 days.

This is very similar to the New Zealand model, with one important difference: the 5-yearly carbon budgets, once passed by the Dáil (parliament) become legally binding.

There is much, much more in the Program for Government, which covers pretty much every aspect of society, environment, and the economy. It’s well worth a look to see what can be agreed by very different political parties.

How did Ireland reach this point? Is it all pie in the sky?

Partly, this is the result of intensive action by climate and other civil society groups over many years. Two groups in particular, Friends of the Earth and Stop Climate Chaos, have been campaigning for carbon budgets and a climate action council since 2007. Over the years, they were joined by more groups, culminating in “One Future“, a coalition of nearly one hundred organisations. Public health groups, like the Irish Heart Foundation and Irish Cancer Society, joined forces with sustainable transport groups to argue that active transport is both low carbon and healthier.

Secondly, the poor record on emissions, combined with Ireland’s required contribution to EU climate targets, became an embarrassment. Work on transitioning electricity was already well underway. The previous government had already adopted an ambitious Climate Action Plan in mid-2019. A lot of the Program for Government is a strengthening of what had already begun.

That doesn’t mean the program will be easy to enact or to achieve. No country has yet managed sustained cuts in emissions by much more than 1% a year. The training and infrastructure programs will be massive and will need support from across society. Agricultural methane, always a sticking point, is treated respectfully in the document, but is as yet unresolved. A current plan to further increase dairy farming will likely have to be stopped, however.

In New Zealand, although we have the Zero Carbon Bill, we are only beginning to take tiny steps to actually reduce emissions. Many proposals have failed, and most people don’t realise what changes will be needed: the crunch will come with the Climate Change Committee reports their first budget in 2021. Although all countries find their own way, right now, New Zealand could learn a lot from Ireland.

2 thoughts on “Ireland’s sensational climate plan

  1. PS – A few days after this was written, the Irish Supreme Court in a 7-0 decision threw out the previous government’s climate plans as “excessively vague and aspirational” and lacking clear plans and goals. The case was brought by Friends of the Irish Environment, who had two main arguments: that the 2017 and 2019 climate plans did not fulfil the legal requirements of Ireland’s 2015 Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act (the judges agreed); and that this violated human rights enshrined by Ireland and the EU, due to the damaging impact of climate change: on this the court did not make a ruling.

    The case is regarded as highly significant and points to the importance of legally binding targets.

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