Ireland’s political response to climate change has received a stinging rebuff from a group of citizens participating in an innovative new government-supported policy forum.
The parliament-appointed Citizens Assembly voted at the weekend in favour of 13 new recommendations to strengthen action on climate change.
The Assembly was established in 2016 and tasked with addressing hot-button topics, including abortion and climate change, and making recommendations to parliament. The Assembly comprises 99 ordinary Irish citizens, randomly selected to give a fair representation across society, under the chairmanship of senior judge, Mary Laffoy.
The Assembly sat for a total of four days to hear detailed expert testimonies and to engage in round-table discussions on ‘Making Ireland a leader in tackling climate change’. No politicians or lobbyists were permitted to address the Assembly, which aimed to deliver a scientifically robust, balanced presentation on the issue.
National and international experts, including Denmark’s former climate minister, Connie Hedegaard, Dr Peter Stott of the UK Met Office and Prof Andy Kerr of Edinburgh University, addressed the Assembly.
Prof Kerr pointed out how Scotland, though similar in population and climate, has taken a radically different path on climate action. This is, Prof Kerr, explained, mainly as a result of clear political leadership across the party divide.
Scotland set ambitious targets of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 42 percent by 2020 versus 2009. It actually hit this target five years ahead of time, and is on target for 100 percent renewable electricity production by the early 2020s.
In stark contrast, Ireland has been sending politicians to Brussels throughout 2017 to demand that even its modest 2020 targets be renegotiated, as DeSmog UK previously reported. This is largely being done at the behest of the politically powerful farming and agribusiness lobby.
On Sunday, the citizens agreed the wording of a list of 13 recommendations, which were then voted on in a secret ballot. All 13 proposals were carried, many by an overwhelming majority. The results were a powerful endorsement of urgent action and a rebuff to the Irish government for its stance on this issue.
A constant theme to emerge from the discussions at the Citizens Assembly was the absence of clear political leadership on climate change. One member of the assembly asked if the Irish government had, for example, funded any public information campaigns on the issue (it hasn’t).
Assembly members voted by a huge margin (97 percent) in favour of either setting up a new or tasking an existing independent body, with resources and appropriate powers, to “urgently address climate change”. This is seen as a pointed rebuff to Ireland’s ‘Climate Action’ minister, Denis Naughten, who regularly publicly defends inaction by claiming it is “not his job to tell people what to do”.
There was unanimous citizen support for the Irish State taking a “leadership role in addressing climate change through mitigation measures, including retrofitting public buildings, low-carbon public vehicles, renewable generation on public buildings, as well as climate adaptation measures. There was also near-unanimity (96 percent) on the need for the Irish State to carry out a comprehensive audit of vulnerability of critical infrastructure.
Importantly, some 80 percent of citizen respondents stated they themselves would be ‘willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities’, showing the willingness of the Irish public to ‘take a hit’ financially if it means a safer future for all. The case for carbon taxes was put to the Assembly by Prof John FitzGerald, chair of Ireland’s Climate Change Advisory Council.
An overwhelming 97 percent of citizens voted in favour of removing all subsidies for peat-burning, favouring these to be phased out over a five-year period. This could prove particularly problematic for Naughten, as one of Ireland’s three peat-burning plants is located within his Galway/Roscommon constituency.
Naughten issued a luke-warm response to the Assembly findings, pointedly not commenting on any of its contentious recommendations.
There was near-unanimous agreement (99 percent) among the Assembly’s participants that the State should legislate to enable the public to sell back micro-generated clean electricity to the grid at a fair price. The so-called ‘rooftop revolution’ of having thousands of farmers, schools and ordinary homes generating solar electric power is being stymied by lack of market access for small energy producers.
A strong majority (89 percent) of citizens favour taxing greenhouse gases from agriculture, on condition that there also be rewards for farmers involved in land practices that sequester carbon. The recommendation added that revenues from agricultural greenhouse gas taxes should be directed into supporting climate-friendly agriculture.
The argument in favour of climate taxes on agriculture was presented by Prof Alan Matthews of Trinity College, Dublin, who stated that minor tweaks in ‘efficiency’ in Irish agriculture were simply inadequate to meet the challenge for a sector that is on track to produce almost half of Ireland’s total emissions. He added that there was an inherent injustice in expecting ordinary Irish taxpayers to have to pay EU fines incurred as a result of agricultural policies.
Critically, Matthews pointed out that most Irish beef farmers actually lose money on their operations, and are only remaining solvent as a result of EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) transfers. With Brexit on the horizon, CAP farm payments are likely to come under increased pressure.
The Assembly’s proposal to tax agriculture emissions was rejected by the Irish Farmers Association, which is expected to use its formidable lobbying power to deter politicians from implementing this plan. Ireland’s emissions in both transport and agriculture are continuing to rise when they should be falling sharply.
An equally strong majority (92 percent) of the participants favoured prioritising all future infrastructure spending to be weighted by at least 2:1 in favour of supporting high quality public transport, especially in rural areas, while there was near-unanimity (96 percent) on the need for the government to support the rapid transition to electric vehicles.
Some 93 percent of participants voted to support a switch in transport priority towards bus and cycle lanes, and that these should be given priority over private car use. Support for organic farming (99 percent) was virtually unanimous, while there was strong support (93 percent) for specific measures to reduce food waste.
Total unanimity was achieved by citizens in favour of the State ensuring all future renewable energy projects have community participation, consultation and ownership built in from the outset.
The next step is for the Citizens’ Assembly recommendations to be debated by Ireland's parliament, and this is where the pitched battle involving vested interests from the business, transport and agricultural sectors will likely take place.
Having been unable to directly influence the deliberations of ordinary Irish citizens, lobbyists will be betting that elected representatives prove altogether more pliable.
Main image credit: Maxwell Photography