Donnachadh McCarthy, The Independent
Photo has been used for illustrative purposes.
In June, during the height of the COVID-19 crisis, Ireland got a new coalition government. It did not receive much attention in the UK media, but it’s a climate game-changer for the Irish and British Isles.
The new government’s programme is packed with actions to tackle the climate and ecological emergencies. This is largely down to the impressive impact that the Green Party had on the deal agreed with their other two coalition partners, Fianna Fail and Fianna Gael.
Ireland has a proportional representation voting system, unlike the UK which uses first past-the-post. This means that although the Irish Green Party won 7.1 per cent of the votes in the 2020 general election, they gained 12 seats in the new Dáil, which was 7.5 per cent of the total number of seats. In comparison, the Green Party won 2.7 per cent of the votes in the UK’s general election in 2019, but gained only 0.2 per cent of the seats in Westminster. If the UK had proportional representation, the UK Greens would have had a much bigger presence in parliament and Boris Johnson may not have been prime minister.
One of the most impressive promises is that the new government will ban all new exploration licences for fossil gas, adding to the existing ban on the government selling new leases for oil. This is the crucial first step all governments have to adopt if we are serious about getting to net-zero carbon.
The UK government in contrast set up a new body in 2015 to maximise the exploitation of its fossil fuel deposits. But Western governments cannot tell developing countries to stop cultivating their own oil, coal and gas fields, if we are still investing billions in new fields ourselves?
Ireland is also cancelling the building of planned new liquid natural gas (LNG) importing facilities and it is adding to the ban on fracking in Ireland, by banning even the importation of fracked gas. The sale of fossil fuelled vehicles is also to be banned from 2030.
The new government has put renewable energy, energy efficiency and the retraining of unemployed workers for the new green economy, at the heart of its Covid-19 recovery plan.
They have set a target of a 50 per cent cut in emissions by 2030. Billions raised from increased carbon taxes will be ploughed into investments in ensuring the lowest paid are not left behind, with a massive retrofit energy efficiency programme for social housing. This will have its own new government agency overseeing its delivery.
Ireland is dependent on imported fossil fuels for 85 per cent of its energy needs. Replacing these with renewables would save the country over €57bn (£51.3) per decade.
The country is blessed with enormous wind-energy resources off the west Atlantic coast, which unlike the UK, have yet to be exploited. Indeed, the long-term goal is for Ireland to be a net exporter of renewable energy by 2050.
One of the most startling promises is on transport. The government programme promises over the five-year life of the coalition, that it will invest 20 per cent of the transport capital budget on cycling and walking infrastructure, as recommended by the UN.
The £2bn over five years announced recently by the Tory government in the UK equates to a pathetic 1.4 per cent of the UK’s projected transport budget. If this 20 per cent pledge is delivered by the Irish government, it will represent a revolution in travel in the Republic, bringing it in line with the successful Dutch model, where 75 per cent of secondary school kids cycle to school.
Parallel to this is a commitment to electrify, as much as practical, the rest of the transport system.
But as it is a coalition agreement, there are naturally some major gaps in the programme. Two of Ireland’s largest industries, beef-rearing and tourism, are very carbon intensive. The programme is almost totally silent on concrete actions to tackle their emissions and indeed the coalition promises to promote both of them.
Aside from these significant flaws, why is such a radical green programme for government in Ireland relevant to the UK? It is relevant because, what happens in practice in Ireland, can sometimes be taken up subsequently in the UK.
It was Ireland who first imposed a ban on fracking, before it was then taken up by each of the home countries in the UK. Ireland likewise was the first country to impose a plastic bag tax, which was then also taken up in the UK and is now saving billions of UK plastic bags every year.
If Ireland can take the climate and ecological emergencies seriously, and successfully implement a realistic governmental programme of concrete actions, then the Boris Johnson government can likewise move from speaking a good line about climate and ecological action, to actually investing seriously in moving the UK economy to a carbon and ecologically responsible one.