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!