General Election: how do the parties rank on climate?

Published by Niall Sargent on

February 5th, 2020

As General Election 2020 kicked off, One Future Ireland asked three academics – climate scientist Professor John Sweeney, law and politics expert Dr Sadhbh O’Neill and Environmental Policy Fellow Dr Cara Augustenborg – to benchmark the main parties election manifestos against the civil society campaign’s key policy asks.  

The asks developed by the campaign – backed by dozens of local and national groups from the women’s, youth, faith, environmental and overseas aid sectors –are all linked to the science of climate change and the UN’s recent warning that the world must reduce emissions by 7.6 per cent per year between now and 2030 to prevent runaway climate change.

As such, One Future wants political parties entering the next Government to commit to specific measurable policies in the areas of emissions reductions, transport, building retrofit, energy, agriculture and nature to achieve the level of climate action that aligns with the UN’s target.

As the electorate shapes up to vote on Saturday, one of the assessors, Dr Cara Augustenborg, shares her thoughts with The Green News on how the parties fare on climate action in their election manifestos.

While Prof Sweeney and I scored the parties against One Future’s specific policy asks, Dr O’Neill was tasked with marking them against the 40 topline recommendations in the landmark report from the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action.

Even with two different criteria, there were no major discrepancies between our results – a reassuring sign regarding our individual analyses.

While I was restricted to the One Future policy asks in grading each section, some policies and issues stood out to me within each manifesto that are not all reflected in the scores.

Eamon Ryan at launch of Green’s climate policies Photo: Niall Sargent

Green Party (B): Lots of ideas, but what’s the priority?

It is not surprising that the Green Party ranked best for climate action, but they scored only 77.7 per cent based on our combined scores. While writing style was not graded, the Green Party could use some help with the tone of their manifesto.

Other parties (e.g. Labour and People Before Profit) had strong language, using words like “we will” or “we commit to”, while the Green’s document reads like an environmental textbook with many shocking statistics on the state of the planet and good ideas on what “could help”.

However, their priority commitments were unclear. As a party which could likely end up in coalition, a sense of their red line issues for a Programme for Government would be useful, particularly because it is unlikely they will get to deliver on all of their ideas as a minority party.  

Strong on: Ambitious emissions reductions of 7 per cent; a new National Development Plan with a climate focus; new mandates for Coillte, Teagasc, Board Bia, and the EPA Advisory Board; and a Total Emissions Control Area around the Territorial Waters of Ireland, along with an aviation fuel tax

Weak on: Climate Finance for poorer countries (an issue ignored by all parties); vague description of their plans for a Just Transition, and too many ideas without prioritisation

Eoghan Ó Ceannabháin from People Before Profit at climate hustings Photo: Niall Sargent

People Before Profit (C): Required reading for every elected representative

During the 2016 General Election, I ranked People Before Profit (PBP) bottom of the pack as the party’s five-page manifesto made it impossible to evaluate their ability to lead a low-carbon transition.

This year, not only did PBP write a longer manifesto, but they wrote a separate climate manifesto (Planet Before Profit) that should be required reading for every elected representative in Ireland as the document is succinct and links their policy commitments to quantified emissions reductions and costs.

Strong on: Ambitious 2030 emissions reduction goal of 53 per cent (approximately seven per cent per year); Excellent quantification of their proposals; an aviation tax and a 20 per cent price increase on those that fly more than four times a year

Weak on: Questionable funding mechanisms, such as putting major agri-business food processors into public ownership and a supermarket levy; No mention of National Parks and Wildlife funding, land/sea conservation areas, or clear biodiversity policies.

JOCCA Committee members at report release Photo: Oireachtas
Labour’s Sean Sherlock (second from left) at launch of JOCCA report hoto: Oireachtas

Labour (D): Supportive of Oireachtas Climate Recommendations, but fuzzy on their own policies

In 2016, I ranked Labour second to the Greens with respect to climate action within their manifesto but this election, the party struggled to compete with the stronger ambition of People Before Profit.

While Labour does promise to implement all the recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Climate Action Committee, the party’s own policies on energy, biodiversity and forestry in the manifesto are vague and difficult to evaluate.

Strong on: Relatively ambitious emissions reduction goal to halve emissions by 2030 as a legal requirement; Public agencies carbon neutral by 2030; Commitment to implement all Oireachtas Committee climate recommendations.

Weak on: Community energy and microgeneration; no mention of NPWS funding; vague forestry policies.

Róisín Shortall of the SocDems at climate forum in Rediscovery Centre Photo: Niall Sargent
Róisín Shortall of the SocDems at climate forum in Rediscovery Centre Photo: Niall Sargent

Social Democrats (E): Love nature, not that into climate

Like Labour, I ranked the Social Democrats relatively strong on climate action during the last election. Their co-leader Catherine Murphy, in particular, was very engaged in climate issues as an elected representative for Kildare North.

Unfortunately, this year the party failed to put much thought into how to implement a low carbon transition, preferring to focus on biodiversity measures instead.

While they aim to halve Ireland’s emissions by 2030 in line with Europe’s goal for higher ambition, their manifesto has very little on home retrofitting, community energy, a Just Transition, or new agricultural policies. The tangible ideas they do present are loosely related to climate (e.g. a commitment to develop a new national strategy to reduce the weight of school bags to encourage kids to cycle more).

Strong on: Emissions reductions aligned with higher EU ambition; Strong on biodiversity/nature

Weak on: Vague policies on warmer homes, community energy, just transition, and agriculture

Sinn Fein marking criteria does not include carbon tax opposition Photo: NUI Galway

Sinn Fein (E): A few good measures, but low ambition for climate action

In 2016, I ranked Sinn Fein second to last on climate action. This year, my colleagues and I ranked the party equally poor on climate action, even without considering their opposition to carbon tax.

While Sinn Fein prioritise rural transport more than any other party and proposes some good transport measures, they plan to invest 300 million in new roads compared to 130 million in public transport.

This is in direct contrast to One Future’s request to fund public transport more than roads. More worryingly, Sinn Fein plan to encourage investment in new regional airports, which would directly contradict emissions reduction efforts in other areas.   

Strong on: Free public transport for under 18s; Agricultural policies aligned with environmental obligations, including green EU cap reform and an environmental basic income trial for farmers along with a new all-party Oireachtas committee on organic farming; Linking overseas aid with Sustainable Development Goals and Coalition 2030

Weak on: Emissions reductions only honour existing EU 2020 and 2030 targets with no new ambition; no reference to new mandates for semi-state bodies or finance schemes for home energy retrofit; Vague forestry policy, and no mention of NPWS funding or new land/sea conservation areas.

Fianna Fáil councillor Paul McAuliffe at climate forum Photo: Niall Sargent

Fianna Fail (F): A few good grains, but climate is a silo issue

While Fianna Fail were instrumental in banning fracking and divesting our strategic investment fund from fossil fuels in the last Dail, their 2020 manifesto fails to demonstrate increased ambition on emissions reductions, only committing to achieve the current target of 70 per cent electricity from renewable energy by 2030.

Party leader Michael Martin has a personal interest in biodiversity and that is reflected in the manifesto, with a new budget for the NPWS, biodiversity, broadleaf forestry and a commitment to deliver on the 119 actions in the National Biodiversity Plan. Fianna Fail aspire to create “pathways” to everything, language that potentially absolves them from achieving anything if elected to Government.

Strong on: Biodiversity measures, free public transport scheme for children; and a relatively strong plan for household energy retrofit, including financing scheme and local energy agencies.

Weak on: Overall emissions ambitions; Strong commitment to new roads; vague policies on community energy, LNG fracked gas imports (which they support), and vague just transition plans; No plan to end peat/coal burning ahead of schedule; potential over-reliance on carbon tax to fund climate action measures

Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton at climate stakeholder meeting Photo: Niall Sargent

Fine Gael (F): Superficially committed to everything under the sun, but dark on detail

Like Fianna Fail, the language in Fine Gael’s manifesto is troubling – They “fully support” everything under the sun, but they are under no obligation to deliver if they merely support something. Looking back on my analysis of their 2016 Manifesto, I surmised they “plan to give you a plan on how [they’ll] plan”, which is exactly what they did in delivering a Climate Action Plan last year.

However, they dissolved the Dail before they had a chance to turn it into real action, which they commit to finishing in their manifesto. Unfortunately, their overall ambition on emissions reductions remains at the two per cent per annum cut that they committed to in the Climate Action Plan, not enough to do our share to address climate change.

An additional concern is their reliance on carbon tax to fund every climate action measure they propose, including agricultural measures. Not only is this a risk as the pot of available money theoretically decreases as the tax successfully changes behaviour, but the allocation of carbon tax collected from individuals toward an already heavily subsidised, climate polluting agricultural sector seems unfair.

While Fine Gael claims that climate will be “at the centre” of a new food strategy to follow Food Wise 2025, they plan encourage further derogations from the Nitrates Directive and emphasise reducing cost of agricultural inputs instead of reducing fertiliser use. They also plan to continue to promote live export markets and the manifesto shows that there is no intention to move away from the current intensive livestock model. 

Strong on: Commitment to fund public transport 2:1 over road transport, home energy retrofit and pay-as-you save scheme for heat pump installation; A proposed marine conservation area

Weak on: Emissions reduction targets, strongly support new air routes between Northern Ireland and ROI; business-as-usual agricultural strategy with climate action measures funded by consumer-based carbon tax.

Cara is an Environmental Policy Fellow at UCD, the co-host of the Down To Earth slot with Ivan Yates on Newstalk FM, is a member of the President of Ireland’s Council of State, and was recently named as the 2020 Woman of Influence at the Irish Women’s Awards.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London