OPINION: Robinson pulls no punches on climate action

April 14th, 2019 5:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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A LONG-AWAITED plan on climate action has been agreed by the cross-party Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Action, chaired by Hildegarde Naughton, TD, and based on the deliberations of the Citizens’ Assembly. Its over-arching aim is to cut Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050 it has laid its report before government to consider which of its recommendations it will adopt.

It is a most worthy, if perhaps too ambitious target, but at this stage, if the bar is not set high, we will never catch up with our international obligations signed up to in the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016. Having failed dismally to come anywhere near meeting the target of a 20% reduction on 2005 emissions levels by 2020, Ireland has gained the unwanted reputation of being all talk and no action when it comes to climate action.

We have said all along in these editorials that the government needed to set measurable incremental targets on the reduction of carbon emissions. Now, at last, this is about to happen with specific targets to meet every five years between now and 2050 – to be monitored by an independent Climate Action Council.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton, TD, has promised to set climate targets across all government departments. Commenting on the importance of this, when launching the Climate Action Committee report, chairperson Hildegarde Naughton said that, ‘It is up to government now to use this bold political mandate to develop an all-of-government action plan and to feed into Ireland’s National Energy and Climate Plan,’ reminding them that her committee planned to hold the government and public bodies to account for the delivery of climate actions.

The #FridaysForFuture strikes urging climate action, staged around the world by mostly second-level students last month, demonstrated that young people are not prepared to tolerate further inaction and, within a few short years, they will be joining the ranks of those entitled to vote in elections and will, most certainly, be holding politicians to account on the matter. By the Taoiseach’s own admission, Ireland has become a ‘laggard’ regarding climate action – something that saddened and annoyed former President Mary Robinson, as she told UCC’s new ‘Plain Speaking’ podcast, ‘It is not good for our profile or even I think for our morale that as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said in the European Parliament that we're laggard on climate change.’

However, it is probably better to admit it than being in denial about it and the big test of Mr Varadkar’s government will be how quickly and radically they tackle climate action. The last thing we need is yet another false dawn on the issue.

There will be some tough action called for across sectors such as industry, transport and agriculture, which are the main emitters of greenhouse gas, and this will probably lead to plenty of controversy. However, we do need to grasp the nettle and tackle the issue head-on as there has been too much prevarication up to now.

Even though farmers are not the main culprits and have been doing their utmost here in recent years to reduce carbon footprint of their agricultural activities, if we want food security in light of all the other uncertainty at the moment, they cannot be expected in the short to medium term to achieve net-zero emissions. The controversy in January about the report by EAT-The Lancet recommending a 90% reduction in our consumption of red meat and dairy products and a 70% reduction of chicken as well as starchy vegetables like potatoes had already provoked the ire of farmers.

And, Mary Robinson was not pulling her punches when she rowed in to the debate, commenting: ‘What we've done as a country is we've decided to put a big bet on beef and milk, and these are not the best from a climate point of view… We still have to feed people, we still have to have farming, but we need to be more diverse, more conservation agriculture, more thoughtful.’

She added that the transport sector is the other area in which we can make a difference: ‘We need to go electric as quickly as possible and so on.’ Her uncompromising attitude as regards Ireland’s role in mitigating the effects of climate change is: ‘It's not an excuse to say we're a small country, not an excuse.’

So now, it’s over to our current crop of politicians to put the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee into action and, more importantly, to ensure their implementation.

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