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Ireland’s Climate Action Plan: Missed opportunity

30 June 2019
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Primary school children hold a demonstration outside the Dail on 13 February 2019, the same day Ireland was reported to hold the third worst record in the EU on meeting fossil fuel targets in 2020. (Photo credit: comhlamh.org)

Kevin Hargaden

On 17 June, the Irish government published its long-awaited cross-departmental plan to address climate change, Climate Action Plan, and launched it with great fanfare and with promises to transform Ireland from a laggard around climate change into a world leader.

The plan details how Ireland intends to “reduce and manage climate change risks through a combination of mitigation and adaptation responses.” In other words: how do we stop climate breakdown and how do we deal with the consequences of what is already happening?

It arrives off the back of a series of successful election results for environmentalist candidates which has come to be called Ireland’s green wave. The government declared, at least conceptually, a climate emergency in the weeks before the launch. Greta Thunberg’s school strike was enthusiastically taken up by Irish school children and the Extinction Rebellion movement is active on Dublin’s streets. There seems to be real and growing appetite for serious climate and ecosystem action.

Sadly, this plan is not it. While initially warmly welcomed by environmental activists, upon further reflection, the plan has been judged a grave disappointment. Instead of going beyond the procedural approach of the Paris Agreement, it settles for the twofold approach of efficiency and managing the climate action response.

After its implementation, Ireland may no longer be a climate laggard, but neither will it be a leader. At best, this plan aims at managing the challenges facing us, instead of overcoming them.

There are 16 chapters, only one of which appears to offer concrete steps for action – which is the section on Governance. There is an excellent structure laid out for how to ensure we keep to the objectives we have set.

The problem is that the rest of the 15 chapters offer very few real objectives. There is a promise that no new spending commitments are entailed in this report, which mentions the word cost 171 times.

As Dr Ciara Murphy, environmental justice advocate for the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice (JCFJ) puts it, this is a “vague plan of plans.” Nature-based solutions are consistently overlooked while the government is attracted instead to technological fixes. There are many credulity-straining promises about adaptation to electric cars, but very little about the adaptation measures available that take advantage of Ireland’s native landscape, such as rewetting and conserving our many bog territories.

On initial engagement with the report, the reader can be over-awed by the apparent rigour of its recommendations. Yet while it has 183 actions points, very few of these are specified in any meaningful way, and all of them have been developed through a cost-benefit analysis.

This is the most depressing aspect of this plan. Ireland is one of the wealthiest, most technologically advanced, and most educated populations in the world. That the government might face the generational challenge of climate and ecosystem breakdown with a series of calculations devised by accountants with no knowledge of the environment is deeply distressing. One gets the impression that they have not fully grasped the scale of threat we face. For this reason, the JCFJ social policy advocate, Keith Adams, dubbed this a “net-zero ambition” document.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis notes the culture of despair that can easily overtake us when we think about climate breakdown. He writes: “people no longer seem to believe in a happy future.” (LS 113)

This government plan seems to mimic much of the Western response to a global crisis they have largely created on their own. The despair takes the form of pretending that if they just try and keep doing what they have been doing, but a little smarter, and greener, and more efficiently, then things will turn out alright.

They already are not turning out alright for the Pacific islanders engulfed by the sea, by the millions trapped in the Indian heatwave this summer, by the countless thousands afflicted by the southeast African storms this year.

The consequences of climate and ecosystem breakdown are already upon us. It is a tragedy that the Irish government does not appear to have eyes to see or ears to hear this critical fact.

Dr. Kevin Hargaden is the Team Leader and Social Theologian at the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin, Ireland and just published his new book, Theological Ethics in a Neoliberal Age-Confronting the Christian Problem with Wealth. His earlier books include Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (2018) and Theology, Disability and Sport-Social Justice Perspectives (2018).

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