My submission to Citizens' Assembly on climate change

How the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change

 

Submission to the Citizens’ Assembly by Peadar Kirby, Professor Emeritus of International Politics and Public Policy, University of Limerick and chair of the board of directors of Sustainable Projects Ireland, the not-for-profit company and registered charity which developed and manages Cloughjordan Ecovillage where I live. This submission draws on research done for my forthcoming book, co-authored with Dr Tadhg O’Mahony, entitled The Political Economy of the Low-Carbon Transition: Pathways Beyond Techno-Optimism (Palgrave Macmillan, due late 2017).

 

Introduction

Humanity is sleepwalking to disaster. Despite seeing ourselves as living in a scientific era when we base our worldviews, our public policies and our personal actions and lifestyles on scientific evidence (for example taking seriously the evidence that smoking causes cancer and adjusting policies and personal actions accordingly), the leaders of our societies from global to local levels, in politics, business, education, agriculture and the media by and large avoid the greatest consensus ever reached by the global scientific community that the actions of humanity are fast creating conditions that gravely threaten livelihoods and communities everywhere and even the future of our species on this planet. As the then French president Francois Hollande put it when opening the December 2015 Climate Summit in Paris, ‘never - truly never - have the stakes of an international meeting been so high. For the future of the planet, and the future of life, are at stake.’ The scientific consensus on which this statement is based finds expression in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and are easily accessed on the IPCC website (www.ipcc.ch). So, in my view, the greatest problem we face is the disconnect between the evidence of science regarding the gravity of our situation and the need for urgent and immediate action on the one hand, and the paucity of responses on the other. We must wake up to the scale of the challenges humanity faces.

            While this is true of all countries, in my view the Irish state and society has been particularly negligent. The scale of our failure to live up to our 2020 commitments on reducing emissions, as admitted in the NMP, is an illustration of this. On a personal level, as someone who lectures on the social and political challenges of climate change in universities in Ireland and abroad (Spain and Iceland mostly), I am constantly struck by the levels of ignorance of the average Irish student about these matters, compared to the students from other countries that I teach. This indicates a major failure by our universities to ensure all students are aware of what is going to be the defining issue of their generation. Education in the gravity of the climate crisis and the requirement to transition to a low-carbon society as a matter of urgency should be an essential requirement to graduate from any third-level college in Ireland. Neither has our media woken up to the issue, judging from the lack of priority it receives in general news coverage. Indeed RTÉ, on the few occasions when it debates the issue, still seems to feel the need to include a climate denier on the panel, thus playing into the hands of those vested interests which devote extensive resources to confusing the public on the clear evidence of science. I therefore greatly welcome the decision of the Citizens’ Assembly to debate the issue of climate change and, in particular, to frame it as to how the State can make Ireland a leader on this issue.

 

Understanding the ‘problem’

Though we label the problem ‘climate change’, in reality this is only one part of the scale of the challenge facing us. Any consideration has therefore to begin by seeking to outline a problem whose scale and solution defies easy definition. Perhaps the closest we have come is in the work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre which has issued two reports that seek to define planetary boundaries (PB). The first, published in 2009, sought to identify nine global priorities relating to human-induced changes to the environment. As the Centre states on its website (stockholmresilience.org): ‘The science shows that these nine processes and systems regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System – the interactions of land, ocean, atmosphere and life that together provide conditions upon which our societies depend.’ In 2009, three of these boundaries had already been crossed; by 2015 a fourth had been. Furthermore, the research identifies two of these boundaries as being core boundaries, meaning that each ‘has the potential on its own to drive the Earth System into a new state should they be substantially and persistently transgressed’ (Steffen et al., 2015: 1). These are climate change and biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and species extinction): by 2015 both had been substantially transgressed. Of the other seven, biogeochemical flows (phosphorus and nitrogen cycles) and land-system change (such as forest cover) had also transgressed planetary boundaries. Of the remainder, ocean acidification is worsening and nearing the boundary, freshwater use is comfortably within boundaries, while global-level boundaries for two processes cannot yet be quantified: these are aerosol loading (microscopic particles that affect climate and living organisms) and novel entities (such as organic pollutants, radioactive materials, nanomaterials, and micro-plastics). Only one boundary shows evidence that human actions have helped keep it safely within planetary boundaries, that is stratospheric ozone depletion.

The boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre detail the multi-dimensional nature of the challenges now faced by humanity. It is clear from the brief description above that the drivers of the processes that are pushing society to transgress boundaries derive from products and activities that are core features of modern society; some of them such as biodiversity loss have elicited concern for over 150 years but actions taken have not been sufficient to keep them safely within the carrying capacity of the planet. As the authors of the 2015 report on Planetary Boundaries state:

 

The precautionary principle suggests that human societies would be unwise to drive the Earth System substantially away from a Holocene-like condition. A continuing trajectory away from the Holocene[1] could lead, with an uncomfortably high probability, to a very different state of the Earth System, one that is likely to be much less hospitable to the development of human societies (ibid.: 1-2).

 

Instead, however, as a report from the OECD in 2011 put it, ‘the world is locking itself into high carbon systems more strongly every year’ as demand for cars grows in developing countries, as growing energy demand worldwide outstrips the capacity to improve the energy intensity of economies, and as expanding agricultural areas most particularly in Africa increase land-use emissions. The report states: ‘Most countries have begun to respond through actions at the international, national and local levels, drawing on a mix of policy instruments that include carbon pricing, other energy-efficiency policies, information-based approaches and innovation. Some progress can be noted, but much more needs to be done to achieve the 2°C goal’ (OECD, 2011: 5-9). Taking a much broader focus than economic growth, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) states that ‘our development model is bumpting up against concrete limits’ (UNDP, 2011: 15) and that the scale of the challenges we face point to ‘a fundamental contradiction: business-as-usual is neither sustainable nor equitable’ (ibid.: 82). Instead, what is required is ‘a fundamental rethinking of the conventional growth model’, including ‘an expansive rethinking of the role of the state and communities’ (ibid.: 81). This will require more active public policy towards decoupling development from carbon emissions and incorporating the true value of ecosystem services into national development plans. This gives us some indication of what the Irish state needs to undertake.

Indeed, the scale of the transition facing all of us is best expressed by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU in German), a group of high-level experts established by Chancellor Angela Merkel to advise her on policy. In a 2011 report, they compared the transition to a low-carbon society to ‘the two fundamental transformations in the world’s history: the Neolithic Revolution, i.e. the invention and the spread of farming and animal husbandry, and the Industrial Revolution’ (WBGU, 2011: 5). The report makes clear that the most difficult changes required for this transition ‘transcend technologies – changing lifestyles, for instance, or revolutionising global cooperation, overcoming policy-related barriers, and dealing responsibly with permanent, cross-generational changes’ (ibid.: 82). The Council emphasises that while these earlier revolutions took hundreds of years, we have to accomplish a revolution of a similar scale in a mere 30 years.

It is the disjuncture between the scale of the crisis we face and the meagre responses to it that is one of the most serious problems to be addressed. However, very little attention has been paid to the reasons for this; indeed, it seems to be taken for granted as if it were somehow to be expected. Perhaps the most insightful analysis of the reasons, at least at an authoritative global level, comes from Pope Francis. In his encyclical letter Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home (2015), he recognises that ‘we lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations’ (par. 53):

It is remarkable how weak international political respones have been. The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our  politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. The Aparecida Document [of the Latin American Bishops’ Conference in 2007] urges that ‘the interests of economic groups which irrationally demolish sources of life should not prevail in dealing with natural resources’. The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests. Consequently the most one can expect is superficial rhetoric, sporadic acts of philanthropy and perfunctory expressions of concern for the environment, whereas any genuine attempt by groups within society to introduce change is viewed as a nuisance based on romantic illusions or an obstacle to be circumvented (par. 54).

At the heart of the problem we are facing, therefore, is the development model being followed by countries throughout the world. It is clear to authoritative analysts that business as usual is no longer an option and that we need to change the developmental direction of our societies. The central role for states is to challenge the vested interests that define so much of this developmental direction, drawing citizens into a national dialogue that helps turn our economies and societies in a more sustainable direction. Already, in the title of the 2015 climate change Act, Ireland has signalled that this is the direction it wishes to move in. For the title contains the words ‘low-carbon development’, implying that climage action requires a different type of development. Unfortunately, what ‘low-carbon development’ might mean is nowhere defined or discussed in the text of the Act, nor does it find expression in the State’s actions to address emissions reductions. However, it offers a signal as to where Ireland might begin its journey in this regard.

Making Ireland a leader:

1)   Political leadership: The starting point forIreland to move from being an international laggard to an international leader on climate action and the transition to a low-carbon society is the development of serious political leadership that has been lacking up to now. This would require educating our political leaders on the realities of the challenges facing us in the hope that enough of them might begin addressing these challenges with the urgency and seriousness that they require. Of course this in itself would not make Ireland a leader but it is an essential pre-condition. In my view, what Ireland could contribute that would be ground-breaking would be to move the focus of action from mitigation and adaptation, which dominate the way political responses are currently structured, to a wider focus on low-carbon development. A good start would be to commission a major report on what this might entail, perhaps from someone of the stature of Professor Tim Jackson of the University of Surrey, former chair of the UK’s Commission for Sustainable Development (abolished by the last Tory government) and author of the much acclaimed book Prosperity without Growth (Jackson, 2016). Moving the focus to models of development would link with an area in which Ireland has shown international leadership and established a deserved reputation. Drawing on this experience and adapting it for the transition to a low-carbon society would show the ability to make a major contribution to international political action on how to make that transition.

2)   Constitutional amendment: There has been debate on the issue of amending Bunreacht na hÉireann to include a clause on protecting the environment. I’m not convinced that, in itself, such a clause in the Constitution would help galvanise the extensive suite of actions that we urgently require to begin moving to a low-carbon society. The one benefit it might have would be as part of a wider public education but it would run the risk of giving a platform to the well-funded efforts of certain vested interests that seek to confuse the public (we have seen some speakers being brought to Ireland over recent months doing just that). So I think any move to amend the Constitution needs to be very carefully considered and raises some tricky issues about how a clause would be worded and what real effects it might have.

3)   Educating the public: The current government is to be commended for its planned National Dialogue on Climate Change. Drafts of what is planned that I’ve seen show it to be extensive and multi-dimensional and it is to be hoped that sufficient resources will be devoted to it, and forceful political leadership from all levels of government will promote and support it, to make the impact on the general public that is urgently needed. Central to the National Dialogue should be the concept of the Ecological Footprint[2] (EF), now a widely used international measure that highlights how we are living beyond the carrying capacity of the planet. Irish residents have, on average, one of the highest EFs in the world. Teaching individuals, households and communities how to measure their EF and incentivising them to put in place measures to reduce it (see proposal in next section), would make a major contribution to transforming public consciousness and would show international leadership. Apart from educating the public (including leaders throughout society such as in business and agriculture), it is also essential that the dialogue incentivise debates on the policy tradeoffs required to move us towards a low-carbon society, debates that must include politicians and policy makers. I have already made a submission to government that such a series of debates be organised in our universities and broadcast live on RTÉ. These should focus on the contentious issues of agriculture, transport, energy, buildings etc. Apart from educating the public on the very real policy challenges we all face on issues relating to the low-carbon transition, such debates have the potential to generate new ideas for the policies we need, ideas that seem sorely lacking judging by the lack of imagination and ambition displayed in the NMP.

4)   Incentivising local creativity: In a paper for the European Union on transitional governance in the service of sustainable societies, Belgian political scientist Olivier De Schutter emphasises the ‘role of social innovations empowering people to invent local solutions’ (De Schutter, 2014: 17). He writes that these social innovations abound and they are often local and territory-based. ‘They typically are based on hybrid governance structures, bringing together municipalities, the private sector, the “third sector” and non-governmental organisations or citizens’ groups’ (ibid.). He gives the example of transition towns ‘in which neighbours work together towards improving energy efficiency, community building and domestic micro-generation installation’. Another example he mentions is Cloughjordan Ecovillage in Co. Tipperary, ‘a supportive social community living in a low-impact way to create a fresh blueprint for modern sustainable living’. De Schutter’s proposals on the vital importance of innovative experiments should be taken up by the Irish state and a programme developed between national and local government that incentivises local communities to experiment with ways to transition to low-carbon living. One idea might be to build on Ireland’s extensive experience with the Tidy Towns annual competition and develop something similar that awards communities for showing evidence of reducing their EF, thereby generating lessons for society as a whole.

5)   Agriculture: Reducing GHG emissions from agriculture is Ireland’s greatest challenge yet government policy seems wedded to a particular form of agricultural development which greatly hampers the state’s ability to move to a low-carbon society. Indeed, as highlighted by John Sweeney, evidence is now emerging that methane is much more damaging than had previously been thought, thus underling the gravity of the damage being done by our dominant form of agriculture (Sweeney, 2017: 114-15). I suggest that instead of the current stand-off between supporters of our dairy-based agricultural model and those opposed to it, that the focus be shifted to our food system. We need to become more aware of just how little of the fruit and vegetables we consume are produced in Ireland. As a result we have an extremely vulnerable food system at a time when we are already seeing climate change endanger food production in parts of the world we rely on for our food supply. Developing local food systems (Cloughjordan ecovillage with its community farm is modeling such a system) has the potential both to strengthen a resilient local food system and to create badly needed local jobs in neighbourhoods around the country.

6)   Energy: As with agriculture, local communities need to become central players in energy generation in Ireland as, for example, has happened in Germany. While the 2015 White Paper on energy did emphasise the potential for energy communities at local level, little has yet been done to support local communities in developing their own generating capacity, making them more energy resilient while also generating local income, though action in this regard is now being promised. Instead, commercial interests rather than local communities are moving to become the key players in renewable energy. We run the risk of missing a golden opportunity to develop an active partnership between the state and local communities in which the latter play a central role in moving Ireland in a low-energy direction but they need to be supported in developing such a role.

7)   Transport: As in other areas, Ireland has failed to recognise the challenge of developing a low-carbon model of transport. When other countries were investing in public transport, and electrifying their rail networks, Ireland was building motorways, thus further incentivising private car use and ensuring that public transport remained underfunded and inadequately developed. Indeed, at the very time when we need to extend and upgrade our rail network, public discussion focuses on the closing of lines, seemingly ignorant of the implications for our GHG emissions. So we badly need a dose of reality in debates on our transport options with the state  having to make up for its past failures to plan for and invest in the sort of modern public transport network that is commonplace throughout Europe. Some of the measures included in the chapter on transport in the NMP are welcome but far more needs to be done to change behavior.

 

Closing remarks

The transition to a low-carbon society defines the enormous challenge now facing humanity. For countries like Ireland, which have locked themselves into high-carbon models of development, the transition will require a change of societal direction that will be nothing less than revolutionary. This is required not only by the urgent need to virtually eliminate GHG emissions over the coming decades, but also by the demands of justice, both global and intergenerational. For we live like we do now, at immense cost to those parts of the world which still live within their EFs (most of Africa and much of Asia) but which bear the brunt of the impacts of climate change, but also because we are robbing future generations of their right to the conditions for a decent life. Instead of seeing this in negative terms, we need to think of it as a golden opportunity to build far better and resilient societies, sharing the resources of our world far more equally and devoting attention to what is a satisfying life for all, connected to one another and to nature in a mutually sustaining way. While technology can help us make this transition, ultimately the challenge is to our imagination and resourcefulness as individuals and communities, to find innovative ways forward. It is thus a challenge to our values and social vision, as Pope Francis makes clear in his encyclical letter. We in Ireland have the resources of imagination and social vision, and can draw on deep traditions of living close to nature, richly expressed in our Gaelic culture and spirituality, to which we now need to turn.[3] The challenges are immense but what we don’t have is time: I hope the deliberations of the Citizens’ Assembly can grapple with these immense challenges and offer a voice of hope and mobilisation to our political class and to our society as a whole. This would be its greatest achievement as we face no issue more grave, weighty or serious.

References

De Schutter, Olivier (2014): The EU’s Fifth Project: Transitional Governance in the Service of Sustainable Societies, available at http://www.srfood.org/images/stories/pdf/otherdocuments/Framing4.pdf

Jackson, Tim (2016): Prosperity without Growth: Economics fore a Finite Planet, London: Earthscan, second edition.

McDonagh, Sean, ed. (2017): Laudato Sí: An Irish Response, Dublin: Veritas.

OECD (2011): Environmental Outlook to 2050: Climate Change Chapter, Paris: OECD.

Pope Francis (2015): Laudato Si: On Care for our Common Home, Vatican City: Vatican Press.

Steffen, Will, Katherine Richardson, Johan Rockström, Sarah E. Cornell, Ingo Fetzer, Elena M. Bennett, R. Biggs, Stephen R. Carpenter, Wim de Vries, Cynthia A. de Wit, Carl Folke, Dieter Gerten, Jens Heinke, Georgina M. Mace, Linn M. Persson, Veerabhadran Ramanathan, B. Reyers, Sverker Sörlin (2015): ‘Planetary boundaries; Guiding human development on a changing planet’, Science Express, 15 January 2015.

Sweeney, John (2017): ‘Walking the Road from Paris’, in Sean McDonagh, ed.: Laudato Sí: An Irish Response, Dublin: Veritas, pp. 109-127.

UNDP (2011): Human Development Report 2011: Sustainability and Equity, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

WBGU (2011): World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability, Berlin: WBGU.


[1] The Holocene refers to the geological period that began about 11,000 years ago providing the climatic conditions for the development of human civilization.

[2] The ecological footprint (EF) is a measure of humanity’s demands on nature and measures ‘the area of land and water it takes for a human population to generate the renewable resources it consumes and to absorb the corresponding waste it generates’ (footprintnetwork.org). It is thus a wider measure than the carbon footprint which measures the amount of carbon and other GHG gases emitted and reflects much more fully the multifaceted impact on the planet of our lifestyles and development patterns.

[3] This vision is evident in a new book of Irish responses to Laudato Sí (see McDonagh, 2017).

Now ‘new politics’ really does mean something

The UK election gave us a night of electoral drama so unique for its unpredictability and upending of deeply held assumptions that it is impossible to find anything comparable. This truly was ‘new politics’, not in the Irish sense of a political cliché to hide paralysis, but in the sense of people, particularly the young, galvanised by a vision that things could be different and defying the carefully crafted regime of the privileged.

 

It is difficult to remember a political leader so vilified and insulted by a large swathe of his country’s media, so demonised and dismissed not just by opponents but by many in his own party as is Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, amid this, he built a base of solid support, honed a message of hope and change, and within a few weeks turned the tables on the establishment. And all was done with calm and courtesy. Yes, this truly is new politics, and it is here to stay.

 

The slogan ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ summed up succinctly the essence of the message that came to mean so much to so many over those few short weeks because it got things back to basics and cut through the obfuscating hype which so dominates today’s politics. Behind the slogan was a return to old-fashioned social democratic policies of redistributing from the wealthy to the less well-off, decent funding of public services accessible on the basis of need and not income, and giving priority to the common good of public over private interests.

 

To this extent, election 2017 was a return to old politics, the sort of politics that used to matter to people, that cemented life-long loyalties and identities because it protected against the ravages of the market and invested in bettering the livelihoods of the many. This was Corbyn’s success, to do the unthinkable and return politics to what really matters to most people, wrenching it from the grip of high finance and big corporations.

 

And it is telling that, in doing this, he also overcame the fragmentation that has come to characterise so many political systems as extremes of left and right seek to respond, often in crude, antagonistic and even violent ways, to the vacuity of mainstream politics. Labour showed that, when a major party begins again to stand for the interests of the majority, there is no further need for fragmentation, and a clear divide between the interests of the many and those of the few defines the political contest.

 

Though the Tories remain in power, nothing can hide the fact that election 2017 marks a fundamental shift in power. If leaders define eras and build new electoral coalitions and possibilities, then Corbyn now looks very likely to define a new era just as Thatcher and Blair have done in the past. But if their legacy was the imposition of neoliberalism by Thatcher and the attempt to give it a human face by Blair, then Corbyn’s emergence marks its decisive demise. How this happens over the coming years is not at all clear; what is clear is that he is putting in place the necessary elements – a strong and energised base of support, a political party being re-formed, the seeds of a post-neoliberal project – to bring it about.

 

And in the person of Theresa May we are reminded once again of the dangers of political hubris, of refusing to engage with citizens, of taking power for granted. Her day is over and she may go down as one of the shortest-serving leaders in British electoral history. It is all her own doing, in the belief that she could hoodwink the electorate. Without an opponent of the calibre of Corbyn, she might have succeeded.

After the French and British elections, it is now clear that if the narrative of 2016 was right-wing demagogic populism, the narrative of 2017 is shaping up to be the re-invigorating of politics. Macron and Corbyn are very different figures, with quite opposing ideologies, but the similarities hold important lessons. Both are outsiders that built a social movement to propel them to leadership and both have had unpredictable impacts on the politics of their countries. Each looks likely to reshape their societies in different ways; how they do it and what the outcomes are will be fascinating to watch.

 

This is the ‘new politics’ we so badly need in Ireland. However, Leo Varadkar became leader of Fine Gael on an ashamedly neoliberal platform and his failure to win the support of the party membership both mark him out as being of the old elitist and neoliberal style of politics. It is ironic that Fine Gael opts for the most overtly neoliberal leader ever to have led a major Irish party, just as other countries are moving beyond the neoliberal era. As always, Ireland arrives ‘a little breathless and a little late’.

 

France moves into a new political space

So, the French have shown again that politics really matters and has become the space where different visions of the future are being fought out. And, while the centrist candidate, Emmanuel Macron now appears certain to be France’s next president, the first round of the 2017 presidential election has already brought massive changes.

As we have seen elsewhere, voters are decisively rejecting long-established mainstream parties and giving support both to new parties and, in increasing numbers, to parties on the extreme right and left. France has now demonstrated these tendencies more strongly than has any other country.

Neither of the two parties that have dominated the politics of the 5th Republic, the centre left and the centre right, made it to the second round. Perhaps the greatest disaster was the 6% vote received by the ruling Socialist Party candidate, Benoit Hammon, but the travails of the centre right candidate, Francois Fillon, and the fact that the vote he received was similar to that of the far left candidate, Jean Luc Mélenchon, also marks a political earthquake.

Attention now turns to the clear option presented to the French in the second round of voting, the centrist vision of the relative newcomer Macron, optimistic but vague and ill-defined, and the firm right-wing, inward-looking and fearful message of Marine Le Pen. Both will face much harder questioning over the next two weeks about the sort of France they want.

Is Macron, as Paul Mason is tweeting as the results come in, the candidate of the ‘global-liberal elite’ or can he offer a credible project of social change that can combine elements of liberal economic policies with strong social supports? If Macron manages to do this, it has implications for centrist liberal politics throughout Europe and beyond.

Two other factors deserve mention in relation to Macron. One is that his campaign has mobilised a new social movement, En Marche. This, then, is a different form of centrist politics based not primarily on an established party but on mobilising especially young people who have been largely alienated from politics. How this movement institutionalises itself as Macron goes on to become president has potential to renew French political life.

The second factor is that Macron signals a generation change in French politics. Having someone who is 39 years of age reach the highest political office, is symbolically important in a Europe where politics remains dominated by leaders who are in their 60s or even 70s. These leaders who politicised within stable systems dominated by the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats. With Macron we have a political leader who has emerged as these systems unravel. How, or if, a new politics coalesces under his leadership will be fascinating to watch.

And then there is the Front Nacional. Though we can breathe a sigh of relief that Marine Le Pen will not make it to the Elysee, election 2017 confirms yet again that around a quarter of the French electorate continues firmly to support a party that wants to go back to an imagined past and that plays loose with our liberal democratic order. It remains a reason for profound concern.

 

 

 

 

Ireland’s mitigation planning: where are the big ideas?

The publication of Ireland’s first draft national mitigation plan as mandated by the Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Act of 2015 may in time be seen as the Irish state’s first attempt seriously to face the enormous challenges of decarbonising our economy by 2050 as we are now legally obliged to do under the 2015 Act. Yet, it shows the state has a very long way to go in finding responses adequate to the challenges.

Examining Ireland’s record on facing the challenges of climate change since the early 1990s, what leaps out again and again is the complete failure of policy makers to accept realities. As a result, this draft plan has to make the shameful admission that we are so far off the target of 20% emissions cuts by 2020 over 2005 levels that the likelihood now is that all we will achieve is a 6% cut.

In at least acknowledging the enormous scale of the challenge Ireland now faces to cut emissions by 30% by 2030 as a way of advancing towards cuts of 80 to 95% by 2050, may we now hope that finally some awareness of the realities of the task facing policy makers and the general public is beginning to dawn?

Yet, what leaps out of the document is the disjuncture between the scale of the challenge and the piecemeal list of policy measures that are presented as the response. Lacking entirely are any big ideas and one gets the impression again and again that what is being attempted is decarbonising within the confines of Ireland’s low-tax development model. Low-cost options within the current model fill this draft plan.

The lack of ambition and any novel ideas is evident throughout. While Ireland has been relatively successful in beginning to decarbonise electricity generation, it is still likely to just fall short of its legally binding target of generating 16% of its energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020, with a trajectory of 15.5% predicted.

Yet, despite an emphasis on the role citizens have to play in making the energy transition, this mitigation plan makes no reference to a key pledge in the 2015 Energy White Paper. This promised to widen the opportunity for participation by ‘facilitating access to the national grid for designated renewable electricity projects, and developing mechanisms to allow communities to avail of payment for electricity, such as the ability to participate in power purchase agreements.’  The failure to honour this promise is a major disappointment for those of us who are working to develop citizens’ energy generation projects, emulating the example of the success of such an approach in Germany.

However, the two sectors that pose the greatest challenge for Irish policy makers are transport (19.8% of total emissions) and agriculture (33%). Here particularly, one would have expected some big innovative ideas but one reads the two final chapters of the draft plan on these sectors with growing disappointment. The problems that a scattered population and the lack of a firm spatial national strategy over many decades have caused are acknowledged, yet surprisingly public transport system is given only a modest role in meeting emissions targets, all within existing policy options.

Yet, even more disappointing is that the plan raises no questions about Ireland’s ability to continue its commitment to a cattle-based agricultural model heavy in emissions. Here the achievement of flat-lining Ireland’s emissions is presented as a great achievement, rather than any ambition of reducing them. And, though behavioural change among citizens is seen as playing a role, our policy makers don’t dare to even mention any ambition of weaning us off our high meat consumption, as the world’s scientists recommended in the 5th assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

There is one huge elephant in the room in this draft plan. It acknowledges what the Environmental Protection Agency has already stated, that Ireland only succeeded in meeting EU targets (under the Kyoto Protocol) because economic growth collapsed; as growth has picked up again, so have emissions. In other words, Irish growth, as is the case worldwide, is carbon-intensive. Yet, this plan is full of positive references to Ireland's economic growth without anywhere discussing the enormous challenge of trying to decouple growth from emissions. In other words, without massive investment in clean technologies, decoupling is impossible and growth itself, as the 5th assessment report of the IPCC stated, becomes one of the principal causes of growing emissions. How Ireland's low-tax, low-spend model of development is going to achieve both growth and emissions reduction is the enormous question left by the draft plan. 

So, Ireland’s first draft national mitigation plan is sadly lacking in imagination and new ideas. Yet, this is presented as a draft plan as the Government is inviting citizens to make submissions to influence the final plan which is due to be published in June. Obviously, lacking ideas itself, our state hopes the rest of us might oblige. Let’s challenge them to get ambitious!

 

 

 

 

2016: Moving (finally) beyond neoliberalism, but where?

For all its surprises, 2016 will go down as the year that finally marked the death knell of neoliberalism. It had seemed to survive the financial collapse of 2008; indeed, the main responses to this collapse, most especially in Europe, served to strengthen market players and further weaken both states and civil society. But it cannot survive the political shocks of 2016.

 

This is for two principal reasons, one bottom up and the other top down. From the base of society has come a ‘revolt of the dispossessed’ that found expression in the Brexit vote in June and in Trump’s election in November, and that has emboldened right-wing forces in Europe and beyond as we enter 2017. This, at long last, is forcing the issues of obscene levels of inequality, of the social sectors bypassed by neoliberal globalisation, and of the ‘iron cage’ of an inhuman technical rationality on to the political agenda.

 

The second reason that this marks the beginning of the end of neoliberalism is that right-wing elite forces have recast themselves as the champions of the dispossessed, willing to offer simple slogans as responses to the anxieties and fears of those being left behind. In Brexit UK, in Trump’s US and maybe in the Netherlands and in France in coming months, the attempts to be seen to be making decisive reforms that change the social situation of marginalised sectors will further strain the consensus that has underpinned neoliberalism.

 

The primacy of open markets, of economic efficiency over social equity, of the subservience of social and environmental policy to corporate interests now runs into a counter-force demanding limits, protection, support for livelihoods, secure identity. Even the current dominant responses being offered which focus on limiting immigration or curbing some trading freedoms (such as Trump’s pledge to stop the offshoring of jobs) mark a retreat from the neoliberal project that has been the dominant political economy project since the 1980s.

 

Of course, the irony is that it is corporate elites that are literally seeking to cash in on the discontent of growing social sectors. In doing so, they are playing with fire as they strengthen the emergence of political forces that are willing to use state power in unpredictable ways, and that do not share the liberal economic consensus which neoliberalism required to flourish. And, as is all too obvious as we enter 2017, the response of the centrist politics that has underpinned this consensus is to seek to emulate the appeal of the right.

 

Trump’s incoming administration is a fitting end to decades of corporate politics, as political leaders ceded power to global market forces, restructuring the state so that it served corporate interests rather than the interests of citizens, especially the most vulnerable. This shift in political power is well expressed in the move from the welfare state that had grown up in the post-war world to the competition state as favoured by neoliberalism. Many US voters seem to have decided that, in this situation, why not just hand over the state to corporate leaders. So we have a new Trumpian view of government as corporate ‘deal making’ over any concept of the public realm.

The dominance of far-right responses to the revolt of the dispossessed serves to occlude the fact that there have also been left-wing responses, from Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, to Corbyn in the UK and Sanders in the US. These offer more substantial responses to growing inequality and social marginalisation, responses that centre on strengthening state power and forging a new social contract with civil society.

 

Yet, it must be admitted that a coherent left-wing alternative has so far failed to be able to compete with the post-truth slogans of the far right. This remains a huge challenge, forcing the left back to basics as social democracy collapses and loses its traditional support bases in country after country. This process, happening over decades, requires a much more radical response in the forging of a new and distinctive social project, not least to respond to the challenges of climate change.

 

The collapse of neoliberalism should also embolden the left, freeing it from the constraints of deferring to market interests. For example, the new conjuncture now requires a forceful political response to the growth of inequality, adopting such robust policies as a return to genuinely progressive taxation, as the re-invention of a strong welfare state, as mandatory pay limits reducing the obscene gap between the highest and the lowest paid, and as supporting strong countervailing forces to the power of capital. All of these are outlined in Professor Anthony B. Atkinson’s latest book on inequality; with the demise of neoliberalism they should be seriously and forcefully promoted by a rejuvenated left, and implemented in full once they win political power.

 

As we enter 2017, the world is being shaken up. We clearly are moving beyond the centrist consensus that helped create the successful social market capitalism of the 1950s to the late 1970s, and then underpinned the emergence of a hyper-financialised neoliberal capitalism. Our future is far less clear than for many decades, and the urgent challenges of climate change are fast moving us into completely uncharted territory. All we can say for sure is that radical change is in store; its content and direction has to be fought for. A forceful progressive response and mobilisation is more needed than ever.