Is Ireland a Climate Action Leader?

Climate Action Plan web

Ireland’s Climate Action Plan was published in the wake of the recent political Green Wave and indicates a Government with its eye on both international and domestic fronts, says JCFJ Social Policy Advocate, Keith Adams.

Ireland’s failure to reach modest emissions targets for 2020 is cast in even starker light by the almost certain failure of the far more significant 2030 targets. The country being viewed as a ‘climate laggard’ harms our international reputation and diminishes our chance of securing a seat at the UN Security Council. At home, as newly elected Green candidates take their seats on councils across the country, the Irish Government has been unsettled by the clear message from the electorate that climate change and its consequences are now headline news. Action was required to follow through on their bold words in declaring a ‘climate emergency’.

In recent years, Taoisigh have made a habit of grandly applauding their own apparent achievements. These plaudits included Ireland being the best small country in the world in which to do business, to raise a family, and eventually to ‘grow old with dignity and respect’. In a similar vein, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confidently declared last summer that Ireland would become a ‘leader in climate action’. The Climate Action Plan is the blueprint for this purported leadership.

The context for this domestic policy is not just the Green Wave, the rise of Greta Thunberg, or the activism of Extinction Rebellion. Ireland was committed to such a strategy as a result of approving the Paris Agreement in December 2015. Following much obstruction and heated debate in the French capital in 2015, with the ghosts of Copenhagen looming large in their mind, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was eventually able to reach an agreement to limit global emissions of greenhouse gases. Underpinned by a requirement to be fair to countries at different stages of economic development, the Paris Agreement was greeted with much fanfare as a framework for the transformational re-structuring of global economies to address climate change. On reflection, despite the broad acceptance by the world’s nations that climate change is a serious threat, the Paris accords had a series of significant weaknesses. It does not explicitly state that fossil fuels should remain in the ground and there are vague allusions to future technologies which will solve the emissions crisis, with no consideration of other harmful ecological implications. In aiming for broad agreement, the Paris Agreement is a watered-down compromise which bows to the intransigence of developed industrial nations.

From a global justice perspective, the spirit of the Paris Agreement is the understanding that the most developed countries, including Ireland, must continue to ‘take the lead’ in the reduction of greenhouse gases. The Climate Action Plan neglects to implement this aspect of the Agreement; instead, the Irish Government has extenuated its inherent weaknesses. Rather than a ‘leader in climate action’, Ireland is content to in a middle-management role.
The influence of the Paris Agreement is evident within the pages of the Irish Climate Action Plan. This is important and welcome; however, an important distinction needs to be made between the purpose of the two documents. As an impetus for action and a guiding framework, which must then be realised by individual countries, the Paris Agreement focuses primarily on procedural and oversight mechanisms. It offers review processes and five-year review cycles to ensure transparent monitoring, compliance, and ongoing revision of targets. With no influence on national budgets and taxation policy, this is the natural extent of the remit of the United Nations Framework for Climate Change in national affairs.

Ireland’s Climate Action Plan should be different. With both the opportunity to outline ambitious emission targets and full decarbonisation prior to the deadline of 2050, and the moral responsibility of a developed nation, it should be a detailed and substantive account of a transformative societal change. Instead, it settles for the twofold approach of efficiency and managing the climate action response. Forebodings of this were clear in the days following the Dáil declaration of a ‘climate emergency’, with the use of procedural gamesmanship to prevent debate on the granting of licences for offshore exploration. It was hard not to conclude that the declaration was gesture in lieu of politics. Now that the document has been published, this suspicion appears to have been confirmed.

Projected annual emission targets of 2% reductions until 2030 will not reach the binding emission targets agreed with the European Council after the Paris Agreement. These targets, formulated to minimise the impact on economic activity will put the onus on future Irish Governments annual to reduce emissions at a far greater rate, after 2030. While the Paris Agreement attempted to balance the challenge of emission reductions with the promotion of biodiversity and the protection of carbon sinks, the Irish Climate Action Plan falls short in this regard as it is framed in the language of costs and efficiencies and aims to manage the reduction of emissions while ensuring no discernible effect on foreign direct investment, tourism, or economic growth.

The Climate Action Plan also lacks robust detail about how reductions in emissions will be concretely achieved within each sector by 2030, and 2050.
The Irish Government which has the power to lead from the top by legislating and investing resources in dealing with the impending catastrophe of climate change, has instead chosen to become akin to a middle-manager of individuals who require a ‘nudge’ to make the appropriate ethical action to avert the looming disaster.

While the Paris Agreement had to settle on the proposal of net-zero emissions to ensure acceptance by all 197 nations party to the Convention, the Irish Government had the option to aim at the only realistic course available: complete decarbonisation. In restricting its future responsibility to maintaining a national ledger of emissions, carbon sequestration, and carbon credits while hoping for the arrival of magical geo-technologies which will save the day, the Government has eschewed its responsibilities. There are meaningful advances in the commitment to some sort of target and to regular reporting and reviews on progress. But this will not result in Ireland becoming a ‘leader in climate action’. Perhaps we are no longer a ‘laggard’, but the current plan consigns us to the mediocrity of middle management.