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).
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 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 (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.
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. 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.
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.