Amid the many details of the Government’s Climate Action Plan which have been the main subject of focus since its publication, one major assumption stands out which has received little attention. This is the capacity of the Irish state to carry through the revolutionary series of changes outlined in this plan, unprecedented in scope and ambition since the foundation of the Irish state.
This is largely a good plan, though it has many flaws, most especially in its abject failure to grasp the nettle of re-directing Irish agriculture on a more sustainable path in the face of determined opposition by the Irish Farmers Association. But these are the skirmishes in a much larger battle for social transformation adequate to the necessity of achieving a low-carbon transition over the next 30 years.
The great strength of this plan is in its governance structures. It marks a revolutionary moment in the practice of the Irish state that it can recommend such far-reaching and demanding structures to hold the state, and indeed all of us as its citizens, to account on a very regular basis for our actions in moving us to a low-carbon society. And, as the pathway to this transition is going to be laid out in five-yearly carbon budgets, holding public authorities to account in achieving these budgets is going to be demanding in the extreme. I strongly suspect that none of the politicians or public servants who have signed up to these changes have the faintest idea of what they will require.
This suspicion is informed by the wholly unconvincing statement that ‘Ireland requires a change in its overall emissions trajectory of the order of a 2% decline each year from 2021 to 2030’ and a much steeper decline of 7% per annum from 2030 to 2050. This, frankly, is yet again kicking the can far down the road, and is completely inconsistent with the pledge to five-yearly budgets. It will be fascinating to see how this inconsistency is resolved over the coming years.
Overall, a glaring weakness in this plan is that it is almost entirely based, as far as can be gleaned from its text, on a ‘Marginal Abatement Cost Curve’ (MACC) developed by McKinsey and Co. on behalf of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment (DCCAE). This is highly technocratic and its projections are totally reliant on the accuracy of the McKinsey scenarios (as well as those of Teagasc in relation to agriculture).
Apart from its reliance on techno-fixes in relation to what is essentially a profound challenge to our social and economic model, the plan makes clear that it ‘does not make any assumptions on the type and cost of policies’ to achieve the adoption of the technologies being relied upon. This seems to contradict the plan’s claim that the measures being recommended ‘are, over their life-time, either cost-neutral or result in net savings to society’. One would like to know the evidence on which this assertion is based.
The plan becomes much more aspirational and less specific as it advances, for example on jobs, on the circular economy, on transport options beyond rolling out EVs. This seems to indicate a lack of knowledge as to how to achieve some of the more far-reaching and longer-term transformations needed to achieve the plan’s goals. On transport, it is noteworthy that further success depends on re-orienting spatial planning which is inevitably going to take many years to produce results. Thus, there is a significant mismatch between the need for urgent actions now to reduce our transport emissions and some of the wider changes required to make this happen. In essence this implies an admission of the disastrous options made by policy-makers over decades.
Which brings me back to the challenge to Ireland’s development model which this plan implies (though its authors seem oblivious to this). For the first decade of its existence, the Irish state governed by Cumann na nGeadhal was fiscally cautious and almost without ambition developmentally. With Fianna Fáil’s accession to power in 1932, developmental ambition was at last evident but a decade of efforts revealed severe capacity deficiencies.
The post-War period saw a searching around for an alternative path which by the late 1950s settled into handing over the development of our society to multinational capital. The thorough neoliberalisation of Irish society that we call the Celtic Tiger (ironically implemented by Fianna Fáil governments) and the resulting collapse of the building and financial sectors to which it led, raised the question of the need for a new development path. However, Irish society has lacked the capacity over the past decade to generate such a new path.
Now, climate change has imposed this upon us, as evidenced in this plan. In essence, this plan puts the needs of Irish society and its citizens over and above the needs of capital, though it nowhere acknowledges this. However, one cannot read it without concluding that the far-reaching changes it espouses are going to be impossible without the active involvement of citizens in undertaking a transformation of our society in the most fundamental ways – our sources and use of energy, our mobility, our forms of housing, our food systems (very inadequately treated in this plan) and moving our economy from one of production to one of maintenance.
The big question, left unaddressed in this plan, is our capacity to carry out this set of revolutionary changes. For a state which, in the late 1950s, essentially put up its hands and said that we can’t develop ourselves so we’ll hand the task over to foreign capital, this raises the most fundamental questions. How do we begin to develop our capacity, as state institutions and as citizenry, to enable us to undertake this revolution? To this task now we urgently need to devote our attention.