January 31st, 2020
This general election, Fine Gael is confronting a much more climate conscience electorate than it did in 2016.
After a year of school strikes, civil disobedience and green waves, the Irish political landscape has changed dramatically in its view toward tackling climate change and the biodiversity crisis.
But what climate vision does the party have going forward as it fights to keep power? We’ve broken down the party’s manifesto to find out what, if any progressive solutions, the outgoing power-holder is offering for the next five years and beyond.
Agriculture remains Ireland’s largest carbon emitting sector, producing a third of the state’s total greenhouse gas share.
Its carbon footprint drastically increased following the removal of dairy quotas in 2016 which led to the industry’s growth both in profit and environmental impact.
Fine Gael’s manifesto says the party plans to deliver on all 34 agricultural actions outlined in the Government’s Climate Action Plan, none of which include a reduction of the size of the national suckler or dairy herd.
The government’s strategy to reduce agricultural emissions largely relies on Teagasc guidelines that call for the use of biomethane and carbon sequestration through agroforestry, rewetting and grassland management.
During several leaders’ debates on both RTE and Virgin Media, Leo Varadkar has pointed to the party’s support of the measures in Teagasc’s Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC) as the key climate mitigation tool in the agricultural sector, including measures in the areas of pasture and cropland soil management, forestry sinks and management of organic soils.
Several environmental groups have criticised this over-reliance on the MACC and the fact that it only looks as far out as 2030. The Climate Change Advisory Council recently cautioned the projected level of mitigation “depends on immediate commencement of implementation and linear adoption to 2030”.
In order to capture the carbon emitted by agriculture and other sectors, Fine Gael reiterated its Climate Action Plan target of planting 8,000 hectares of new forest year.
The policy would see an improvement for the state’s forestry record, as only 11 per cent of Ireland is forest cover. By mid-century, the government says, Ireland would have a total of 18 per cent forest cover under its tree-planting scheme.
However, the goal is considerably lower than other party proposals, like the Green party who are aiming for 30 per cent forest cover by 2050.
The species of trees planted will also be crucial going forward. Seventy per cent of new forest under Fine Gael’s plan would be short-rotation clearfell conifer plantations.
Sitka Spruce is a species that makes up just over half of all trees planted in Ireland, and environmental activists have protested its forestry dominance owing to the model’s negative implications on biodiversity, including some protected species and water quality.
Fine Gael also proposed developing markets “for harvested wood products and biofuels” in their manifesto, which research has found can be “worse than fossil fuels” in contributing to climate change.
Energy and Just Transition
In line with promises made in the Climate Action Plan, Fine Gael aim to have 70 per cent of all electricity powered by renewable energy by 2030.
One such source could be through the development of the new offshore wind sector the party promises, which includes the delivery of 3.5 gigawatt capacity from the sector by the end of the decade.
In order to meet its 2030 energy generation target, the manifesto says that by 2023, peat will no longer be used to generate electricity. The party sets the same target for coal by 2025.
As peat operations wind down, Fine Gael says it will allocate €11 million in 2020 to the Midlands to fund “retraining and reskilling” Bord na Mona workers. The party is not in favour of giving the recently appointed Just Transition Commissioner a greater role in work related disputes.
The manifesto pledges €5 million for 2020 for the restoration of 1,800 hectares, but as RTE’s Hot Air programme pointed out, that only accounts for less than a quarter of one percent of total Irish bogland.
If Fine Gael retains power, the party will try to implement its halving of transport emissions by the end of the decade and aim to have just under one million electric vehicles and 1,200 electric buses on the road as well.
However, other parties have pushed back on this aspect of its Climate Action Plan, as Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said the electric vehicle was “unrealistic” and that the plan should have prioritized public transport.
In its manifesto, Fine Gael say they want to see half a million people take up walking or cycling to work and pledge to have developed cycle network for each city. However, how this increase will be implemented remains vague and the party remains set on maintaining a far higher ratio of spending on road infrastructure over public and active transport.
The party still has its sights set on an €80 per tonne carbon tax figure by the end of the decade and took its first albeit small step in the last budget by with a €6 increase.
If re-elected, the party aims to see incremental increases of €6 per tonne per year up until the end of the decade. The revenue raised would be ring-fenced for decarbonization and Just Transition.
However, many experts have criticized the single-digit increase. The chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council, Professor John Fitzgerald, called it “disappointing” as it fell short of the €15 per tonne hike that the independent advisory body had called for.
In addition, many environmental groups and Codema, the Dublin Energy Agency, have outlined concern that not all of the revenue from the carbon tax has been put aside for climate action.
At present, around €400 million raised per year from the carbon tax remains in the general exchequer fund, with Fine Gael not proposing to change this dynamic.
Civil society groups have also questioned the party’s position not to directly return some or all of the proceeds from the tax to those affected by the tax or on low incomes through the likes of tax credits, welfare payments and/or child benefit payments.
The manifesto pledges to support biodiversity through farming and peat restoration and stresses the €60 million the Government plans to allocate to biodiversity under Project Ireland 2040.
Fine Gael has also promised to ensure the full implementation of the “biodiversity duty” on public bodies to have regard to policies, guidelines, and objectives to “promote the conservation of biodiversity”. However, experts remain critical of certain Fine Gael-led biodiversity proposals.
Trinity Botany Professor Jane Stout noted recently that the public beehive installation Fine Gael have proposed contain “a single species of bee Apis mellifera” and asked the government to “clarify how your pledge to install them on public buildings will promote biodiversity”.
The manifesto refers to Project Ireland 2040 as a source of funding for almost €1 billion to minimize the impacts of river and coastal flooding via the implementation of Flood Risk Management Plans.
The party’s focus on hard engineering solutions for flooding have been heavily criticised in the past, and it does not appear that it has plans to change toward more soft engineering and nature-orientated solutions.