New roadmap needed to revolutionise Ireland’s climate policy

Published by Niall Sargent on

September 12th, 2018

The recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly are the best foundation on which to lay a policy roadmap for lasting leadership in tackling climate change.

This was the expert view that the Environmental Pillar outlined before a new 22-member Joint Oireachtas Committee to explore how best the State can lead in tackling climate change.

Last November, the Assembly voted for recommendations such as the establishment of a carbon tax on agricultural emissions, the phasing out of peat subsidies and increased spending on sustainable public transport.

The recommendations were prepared following consultation with the Assembly’s Expert Advisory Group and feedback from the 75 Assembly members.

Built upon the Assembly’s recommendations, the Pillar’s Charles Stanley Smith outlined key policy decisions to the committee that he said would bring Ireland a step closer to real climate leadership.

Echoing the calls of the Assembly and the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC), Mr Stanley-Smith called on the committee to push for an end to subsidies for peat harvesting through the Public Service Obligation (PSO) Levy on electricity consumers.

Train with milled peat for Edenderry Powerstation Photo: Peter Mooney

In a separate committee session this morning, the chair of the CCAC, Professor John Fitzgerald said that cutting support for peat burning for electricity generation is an “easy win”.

Mr Stanley-Smith also said that bogs should be rewetted and that the arterial drainage scheme should be reviewed as draining high carbon soil causes a “significant percentage of agricultural emissions, whilst depleting soil fertility”.

He also said that the Pillar also supports a carbon tax on agricultural emissions, pointing to a recent Teagasc report that found a carbon price on Irish agricultural emissions of €50 per tonne (CO₂e) is required to enable climate mitigation efforts in the sector.

He also called for greater investment in clean public transport and cycling and walking infrastructure in the National Development Plan to bolster a move away from private car use. Mr Stanley-Smith called for two-thirds of the transport budget in the Plan to go toward walking and cycling instead of the five per cent currently set aside.

Row of Bikes Photo: Pixabay

The Pillar’s Andrew St Ledger also put forward several recommendations in relation to Ireland’s forestry policy, including:

  • An independent review of Coillte to ensure that the commercial semi-state body manages its large public land bank in “a climate resilience manner”
  • Creating a Forestry Task Force as part of an independent body to address climate change as called for by the Citizens’ Assembly
  • Prioritising a new forestry model of native trees and “biodiversity-rich” woodlands in the right places
  • Rewarding farmers for carbon storage and land diversification with a focus on planting native trees and organic farming

According to figures from the State’s latest forestry report, afforestation rates have fallen from over 20,000 hectares (ha) in the late 1990s to around 6,000ha in recent years, the lowest figures in decades. Forest land cover is currently at 10.5 per cent, well below the European average of 33.5 per cent.

“Regarding forestry policy, the reality is we are actually headed for a deforestation scenario with poor planting rates combined with ongoing higher harvesting rates. In this situation forestry will not only be failing to mitigate against climate change it may be making it worse,” Mr St Ledger said.

“We want to see the largest public land bank in Coillte control transitioning to mixed native woodlands and forests that ensure sustainable management of this natural resource for long-term climate mitigation and adaptation.”

Another Pillar spokesperson, Oisin Coghlan, said that these recommendations are the “best place to start the dialogue” on the National Climate and Energy Plan (NECP) that the Committee is shaping.

Mr Coghlan said that the new plan is urgently needed as shown by recent reports from reputed EU bodies, renowned think tanks and international NGOs that all find Ireland to be a climate laggard.

He said that one recent positive to emerge was the Taoiseach and the Minister for Climate Action’s recognition that current policies are “not working” and “need to be radically revised”. 

These admissions, he said, “clear the decks” for the committee to “forge” a climate action plan for the next decade that puts Ireland on track to do our fair share to meet our climate commitments.

“The Government has conceded frankly that current policies and measures are not working and that we need a reset. The significance of these admissions is that they clear the decks for the work of this committee.

“Government TDs and Senators no longer need to feel honour bound to defend the current plan, and opposition TDs and Senators no longer have any incentive to score points against it. It’s going to back to the drawing board, indeed your work can shape it.”

Conférence des Nations Unies sur les changements climatiques – COP21 (Paris, Le Bourget)

Action needed now, not later

The Pillar delegation was joined by members of Stop Climate Chaos (SCC), a coalition of overseas aid, youth, faith, and environmental groups calling for Ireland to do its fair share to tackle climate change.

Speaking on behalf of SCC, Professor John Sweeney said that there are indications that decarbonisation of the global economy cannot wait until 2050 if we are going to “avoid the dangerous [climate] scenarios”. He said that there is growing consensus across Europe that 2050 is “too far away” a target for decarbonisation.

It is highly likely, he said, that Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will call for greater action to achieve short-term results at its next major conference in Poland in December.

He warned that without greater action and hard choices now rather than later, the “steeper the fall off the cliff will be in the next ten to 20 years” for Ireland.

“The time for procrastination is gone,” Prof Sweeney said, with the summer heatwave a clear indication that we are “facing into a situation where extreme events become more common” and the economic, social and environmental impacts more distinct.

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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