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Let’s make 2019 the year we choose a safer, healthier future.

Posted by Oisín Coghlan on January 01, 2019 at 06:20 AM

Poolbeg sunset by Philip Milne - Poolbeg chimneys. A monument to the sunset industries of the fossil fuel age. Photo by Philip Milne.
Poolbeg chimneys. A monument to the sunset industries of the fossil fuel age. Photo by Philip Milne.

This is the full length version of an article for the Irish Independent

Politicians and the public are paying attention to climate change like never before. A number of factors coming together gives us the opportunity to make 2019 the year Ireland takes climate action seriously.

At the start of this year Taoiseach Leo Varadkar conceded that Ireland is a laggard on climate change and that he wasn’t proud of our record. Shortly afterwards the EPA projected that, at best, our polluting emissions would fall by just 1% from 2005 to 2020, rather than the 20% we promised. Former Minister Naughten admitted that our current climate action plan wasn’t working, and earlier this month two European thinks thanks ranked Ireland worst in Europe on climate change for the second year running. And the recent UN science report on climate is a genuinely terrifying final call to action, saying only “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” can limit global warming to safe levels.

But there are hopeful signs. After hearing from a range of experts, the Citizens’ Assembly produced 13 far-reaching but practical recommendations for action. Proving, that on this as on other issues, the citizens are ahead of the politicians. The Oireachtas responded by setting up an all-party committee with the same status and resources as the Committee that dealt with the 8th amendment. Those 21 TDs and Senators have been doing their job diligently and deliberately and are due to report at the end of January. In 2019 Ireland has to develop a new national energy and climate plan anyway, as part of the EU’s implementation of the Paris Agreement. And we have a new Minister, Richard Bruton, who is promising a new all-of-government climate action plan, modelled on the Action Plan for Jobs, that will lead to “a revolution in how we live”. So what should be in it?

A Just Transition Taskforce

Whenever a US multinational announces it is closing a factory, overnight the Government sets up a taskforce with the state agencies to support the workers find new jobs. We have known for literally 20 years that we have to stop burning coal and peat for electricity and Government is still dragging its heels. We need a Just Transition Taskforce now, with representatives from the unions, the ESB and Bord Na Moma, all the state agencies, NGOs like Irish Rural Link and local community development representatives. It needs to have the resources and the authority to support the affected workers, and their families and communities, to plan for a sustainable future and realize it.

Moneypoint is actually closed now and has been for months, due to a fault. And the lights are still, proving we don’t need to burn coal even during peak winter demand. Serious consideration should be given to leaving Moneypoint offline. Coal provided just 12% of our electricity in 2017 but over 25% of our climate pollution from electricity.

Peat is even worse, providing just 7% of our electricity but producing 20% of our pollution. We’ve been subsidizing that to the tune of more than €100 million a year. That direct subsidy ends in 2019, but Bord na Mona wants to keep burning peat for another 10 years. And it wants to grab a chunk of the subsidies for wind and solar to make it economically viable, but co-firing its power plants with wood. We should just stop burning peat in 2020 and use the subsidies we save to support the affected workers and communities.

A payment for small-scale solar generation.

Every school should have solar panels on their roofs generating electricity and generating income. So should parish halls, sports clubs and farm buildings. It’s happening across Europe but it doesn’t happen here because you have to give away any power you don’t use to the ESB for free, so it doesn’t make economic sense to invest. Ireland does community-scale well, from Tidy Towns to GAA. We know there’s huge enthusiasm for community energy. We need to unlock that potential with a rooftop revolution that puts citizens at the heart of the energy transition, making it something that’s gone by and with them, not to them by large companies making a killing.

An SSIA scheme for insulation, and a Tipperary Energy Agency for every county

We need to upgrade at least 100,000 homes a year between now at 2030. Houesholders are going to have to invest themselves, but the state has to make it attractive and simple. Something like the old SSIA scheme, for every €4 you invest in retrofitting your home the state gives you €1.

But it’s not just a financial challenge, householders also need project management support to figure out what they need to get done and what contractor to trust to do it and at what price. The Tipperary Energy Agency has built up an unrivalled capability and reputation for doing that well in a way that appeals to people (it's about warmer homes, with healthier air and lower bills as much as lower emissions). We need to scale up the same capacity in every country in Ireland, with a support agency that has the reach, the resources and the trust to deliver, modelled on the success of Tipp Energy.

Public transport, cycling and walking

Transport is the area our pollution has risen fastest. We should implement the very simple Citizens Assembly recommendation that 1/3 of the transport budget should go on roads and 2/3 should go on public transport, cycling and walking (reversing the current ratio). And we should implement the UN recommendation that 20% of the budget should on cycling and walking (less than 2% does now) as that also tackles obesity and promotes healthy lifestyles.

Carbon Budgets and Carbon Impact Assessments

These are two simple but powerful policy management tools. The new climate and energy plan should come with two 5-year carbon budgets, voted on by the Dáil. That’s simply the total amount of pollution Ireland will emit from 2021-2025 and 2026-2030. Departments then negotiate within that for their share of the pie, just like the fiscal budget and implement policies to stay within their budget. At the moment there’s nothing to translate national targets into Departmental discipline.

Moreover, no Government policy that might affect our emissions should be adopted by Cabinet in the dark. They should run the numbers and estimate how much emissions will go up or down. That assessment should be in front of Cabinet when they make the decision and it should be published when they announce them.

A cheque in the post

We are going to need to increase the price on carbon, in line with the polluter pays principle. It will give stready signal that every time we have a choice, choosing the less polluting option will have us money, as will investing in energy saving. But we have to do the carbon tax in a way that protects the most vulnerable and is socially fair.

There are a number of ways that can be done, but in an era when trust in politicians is low I am inclined towards the simplest, most transparent model. That is what is called “tax and dividend”, where 100% of the tax revenue is given straight back as an equal flat lump sum to every man, woman and child resident in Ireland. The impact of that is positive and progressive. If you spend less than the average person on polluting things you end up with a cash bonus. If you spend more than the average person on polluting things you end up out of pocket. Less well off households spend less on average than richer households on polluting goods so they end up a little better off. We still face a price signal, polluting products get more and more expensive, you will save money if you choose the a less polluting product but as we make the transition we protect those most vulnerable and those for whom the less polluting choices are not readily available.

It’s important to remember that carbon tax is not a silver bullet – there is no silver bullet – but we know it incentivizes and accelerates the adoption of every other solution by households and businesses. So, in Budget 2020 the Dáil should vote for an €20 increase in the carbon tax and for a €5 increase every year after that. And on 1 January 2020 we should all get our first carbon dividend cheque in the post.

 

In Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth” he worried we would go from denial to despair without stopping in the middle for action. That is the choice we face right now. But it’s an easy choice: who wouldn’t want a warmer home with lower bills, better public transport and healthier lifestyles, and a chance for your community to own the energy that will power the future. And a decent shot at containing climate change enough to protect that future.

Let’s make 2019 the year we choose a safer, healthier future.

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