Commentary on new EU climate proposals

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By Oisin Coghlan, Director, Friends of the Earth Ireland

The package of climate measures proposed by the European Commission yesterday is not enough to contain climate change. It is now up to government ministers to make sure Europe does its fair share. There are a number of obvious improvements that can be made and Ireland is well-placed to champion them.

The overall reduction in emissions planned by the EU, 20% down from 1990 levels by 2020, is inadequate. It does not reflect the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) which concluded that rich countries will have to cut emissions by between 25 - 40% by 2020. Just a few weeks ago at the UN talks in Bali, which launched negotiations for a new climate treaty, the EU fought long and hard to ensure the IPPC figures were mentioned in the final text. The EU now risks undermining its leadership role if it is not seen to prepare for cuts within that range. European leaders, including Bertie Ahern, agreed last year that the EU will accept cuts of at least 30% in any new global deal. They should now instruct the Commission to plan on the basis that those talks will succeed and the EU-wide reduction target will be at least 30%. Our common future depends on that success. Ultimately, you can't negotiate with the atmosphere. We either cut emissions enough to stop climate change running out of control or we don't.

Given that the target for the EU as a whole is too weak, it is not surprising that the target for Ireland is also weak. But the Commission has compounded that initial mistake by proposing that the new reduction targets be based on emissions levels in 2005, rather than the Kyoto baseline of 1990. This seems ludicrous. It would reward the laggards who failed to act to meet their Kyoto commitments in the intervening period. Ireland is among the worst offenders. Our emissions rose by 26% between 1990 and 2005, when our Kyoto commitment is to limit the increase to 13%. To be fair and effective, our new target should build on our Kyoto commitment, seen by all as a modest first step, not let us off the hook. There is no time to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Imagine, by way of analogy, if your doctor said that it is vital for your future health that you lose 3lbs in the two months to Easter: one pound in the first month and two pounds in the second. But, what if instead of losing one pound in the first month you put on another pound? To follow your doctor's orders and protect your health you simply have to lose four pounds in the remaining month. To reset the clock, and put off any net weight loss until after your doctor's deadline, is to risk your health. In the case of climate change we know that time is running out and the time for real, substantial reductions is now.

Thankfully, the Irish Government seems to have realised this. Without doubt the single most important step in Irish climate policy since we signed the Kyoto protocol 10 years ago is the commitment in the Programme for Government to cut our climate-changing emissions by at least 3% a year on average from now on. This is considerably closer to what the science dictates and equity demands than today's EU proposals. It should be enshrined in law as a cross-party majority of TDs has called for.

Such reductions will put Ireland on the path to meet an EU-wide reduction target of 30%. On this basis Irish ministers should press their EU counterparts to include this more realistic target in the final EU package. Realistic in this context must mean 'what is required to prevent runway climate change' not the usual political meaning of 'what we can achieve without ruffling any feathers'.

And now it's time to move from commitments to concrete action. The single most important step the government can take to achieve its own target is to put a price on carbon pollution across the whole economy. Since the Kyoto clock started ticking on 1 January we are already paying for every tonne we emit above our Kyoto target. Taxpayers money has been set aside to buy pollution permits overseas. Far better to make the polluter pay by putting a clear price on carbon. Thereby those who reduce their carbon footprint will be rewarded and those who pollute profligately will be penalised.

Friends of the Earth is neutral on whether carbon pricing is done using a tax or a quota system. Given the significance of transport emissions here and the impression so far that rising petrol prices have had little impact on car use there is a strong case for piloting a quota system, such as the Cap and Share scheme proposed by Feasta, in the transport sector. What is certain is that we cannot afford to wait for two or three years for a Commission on Taxation to ponder and propose. We have wasted enough time already. The tools and technology we need, such as pricing and wind power, are there. What is needed now is vision and leadership.

On Tuesday, Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen told the Irish Times that climate change poses a 'very challenging agenda'; much of it on his desk. He can prepare to rise to that challenge by asking himself 'what would Whitaker and Lemass do?' It is fifty years, almost to the month, since Whitaker published his 'grey book' that laid the ground for a revolution in Irish economic policy led by Lemass. Fifty years on we need a 'green book' and a revolution on a similar scale if Ireland is to do its fair share to prevent climate chaos.

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