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Environment is the weak link in social partneship deal

6 Jul 2006

The following is the full-length version of Friends of the Earth Director Oisin Coghlan's opinion piece in today's Irish Times.

The latest social partnership deal is being described as a landmark in public policy for adopting a 10-year time horizon and putting social progress on a par with economic development. Partnership is no longer a short-term pay-deal with social measures bolted-on, it is now a long-term framework for "nurturing the complementary relationship between social policy and economic prosperity". While social campaigners can welcome the deal for recognising the economic and social "as two sides of the same coin", as an environmental campaigner it's hard to see it as anything other than a two-legged stool. Towards 2016 pays periodic lip service to environmental considerations in a vague and aspirational way but they rarely intrude on the more developed policy areas in the agreement.

We can surmise this is because there was no one around the table whose first interest and bottom line was environmental sustainability. It certainly can't be because there was nothing to talk about. We know Ireland is the fifth most climate-polluting country in the world per person and that our emissions are overshooting our Kyoto limit by a factor of two. We know we produce more waste per person than any other country in the EU. We know we're one of the most car-dependent countries in the world and that carbon emissions from transport have risen a staggering 143% since 1990. We know that if everyone consumed and polluted like the Irish we'd need the resources of three planet Earths.

Oddly, Towards 2016 states "in the past the performance of the economy set limits to our social and environmental possibilities". This may have been true for aspects of social policy but the reverse is true in the case of the environment, which sets limits on the future performance of the economy unless we move to a more sustainable model of development. One fears, however, that when we say sustainable development in Ireland we really mean development which keeps on going, at least to the next election.

A quarter of a century ago the late Charles Haughey told the nation "we are living way beyond our means". What was true fiscally in 1980 is equally true environmentally in 2006. Then our unsustainable borrowings were from the financial reserves of international banks. Now they are from the ecological reserves of future generations at home at more especially in developing countries. Towards 2016 reiterates Ireland's commitment to "to ensure that the interests of people in the world's poorest countries are protected". It is the poorest in these countries, the same communities devastated by the Asian Tsunami and by repeated droughts and famines in Africa, that are the first, and will be the hardest, hit by the climate instability. Climate instability caused by the carbon pollution of the rich world of which we are now so firmly a part.

From a vantage point outside the talks it's hard to see how the social partners could adopt a 10-year perspective and fail to put climate change at the heart of public policy. The science tells us we have 10 years in which to make global greenhouse-gas-emissions begin to decline sharply if we are to prevent the growing climate crisis from becoming irreversible climate chaos. Climate and energy will dominate public debate in the coming decades in the way emigration and unemployment did in past decades. Why have the social partnership talks so singularly failed to respond to the challenge ahead?

It's hard not to conclude that much of the answer lies in a belief that the public have never had it so good and would not welcome the prospect of change. Perhaps we think of ourselves as a people who can wait and fix something up at the last minute or when the EU forces our hand? This is both short-sighted and wrong-headed. Firstly, there are no quick-fixes or short-cuts to climate security. Moreover, the climate crisis and oil peak mean change is coming whether we welcome it or not. Our choice is what kind of change and whether we manage it ourselves by making the shift to sustainability gradually, starting now, or whether we wait and let change happen to us by way of shocks, disruption and upheaval down the line. Secondly, we are in fact a society well used now to radical change, as the recent RTE series on the last 20 years illustrated. There is no reason why the changes of the next 20 can't be equally as liberating and satisfying if we mange them proactively.

Almost half a century ago TK Whitaker wrote his "Grey Book" which sparked a paradigm shift in public policy from inward-looking economic self-sufficiency to outward-looking economic internationalism. What followed - investment in education, the targeting of strategic US companies and the social partnership process itself for example - show that we can in fact be quite good at planning when we put our mind to it. Nothing less than another paradigm shift will do now. We are a people of boundless creativity and ingenuity with a government that wants to position Ireland as a Knowledge Society. Perhaps another Whitaker report, a "Green Book", can spark the shift. What is certain is that we need another sustained period of political leadership, innovative public policy and social partnership if we are to rise to the challenge ahead in a way that improves the quality of life for all.

Digital Revolutionaries