After a ‘lost decade’ on climate action, Ireland finally has a government in place with an ambitious mandate from the electorate for transformative change into the 2020s.
The new Programme for Government includes the unprecedented commitment to an average 7% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021-2030, based on a pathway to achieving net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
In the Climate Action Bill, to be in the Dáil within 100 days, the new 2030 and 2050 climate targets will need to be carefully defined in terms of Paris Agreement-aligned cumulative budgets for carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, as well as sustained and substantial methane emissions reduction.
After years of abject failure, succeeding on delivering this objective equitably would finally transform Ireland from our status of international laggards in terms of playing our fair share in crucial global efforts to address dangerous climate change and biodiversity collapse.
Achieving these objectives will require wide-ranging changes across all aspects of Irish society and our economy, as well as shifts in mindset in how we define what are our core values and true priorities.
An Taisce’s Climate Committee will keep the pressure on in the months and years ahead to ensure that the ambitious targets and objectives on climate action are met in full and on time. In this regard, the composition of and powers assigned to the new Climate Action Council will be an acid test of the intent and credibility of the new coalition.
Misgivings have been expressed publicly and privately that the new government will once again fail to grasp the nettle of radical action on climate and biodiversity, in line with the science. There can be no more excuses for inaction and foot-dragging, and civil society groups, including An Taisce, will continue to keep up the pressure for meaningful change.
Changes on this scale have been technically possible for some time; what has been missing has been the political resolve and focus to make it happen, especially in transport and agriculture. This Programme for Government does promise significant change in transport policy, redirecting monies toward walking, cycling and public transport – particularly essential given the ongoing challenge of Covid-19.
The commitment that 20% of the total transport capital budget will be spent on cycling projects and walking infrastructure is very significant as a response to the chronic neglect of these modes in national transport policy and funding programmes for many decades. Additionally, the 2:1 ratio of expenditure between new public transport infrastructure and new roads marks a welcome change in direction.
This shift is consistent with the new trajectory being taken all over Europe in moving towards a low carbon and healthier mobility system. It aligns with the Commission’s Covid Recovery Package and the EU Green Deal.
As widely observed by civil society, by far the weakest element of the Programme for Government related to emissions from the agricultural sector, which account for more than one third of total national emissions.
In this regard, the appointment of the new Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, Barry Cowen TD will be of particular importance. An Taisce wishes him every success in a demanding portfolio. It is vital that the new minister maintains his independence and resists pressure from lobbyists for vested interests within the intensive agri-industrial sector.
Mr Cowen’s role, we believe, should be to guide farming in its transformation towards genuine sustainability, resilience and biodiversity protection. Those best placed to deliver on these objectives, and who need to be supported and nurtured, are smaller farming families, especially those engaged in organic and other nature-friendly forms of farming.
Overall, the Programme for Government has much to commend it, from an ambitious retrofit plan and major reforms of the transport sector to a decisive shift away from dependence on fossil fuels and towards a clean energy future, but what matters now are that these undertakings are honoured without delay.
An Taisce reminds all parties that commitment to early, deep and sustained cuts in fossil fuel and nitrogen fertiliser usage while ensuring ecological system recovery is the only scientifically justified trajectory forward to the safest possible climate future for people and for nature. We wish the incoming government every success in delivering fairly on these objectives.