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“Durbanism” – the art of containing disappointment and moving from “headline targets” to action. By James Nix

After Durban, delivering a 20 per cent emissions cut moves centre-stage, for Ireland

We need to move quickly from the headline figure to a hard-minded sector-by-sector approach.

The new climate agreement reached in Durban is bitterly disappointing for its lack of ambition, revealing a world held back by the continued foot-dragging of the United States. But at least the Durban deal contains a pledge that all the major polluters will put in place legally binding measures to reduce climate change emissions over the next three years.

The EU already has binding measures in place, and under them, Ireland must cut emissions 20 per cent by 2020. Indeed, Minister Phil Hogan told the Durban negotiations that the Irish Government “is prioritising the climate agenda to ensure that we realise our 2020 climate ambitions and position ourselves on a pathway to a low carbon economy”.

EU law does not specify how that 20 per cent cut will apply in Ireland, but the reality is that we must move very quickly to translate our headline figure into real action in all the key sectors. Agriculture, transport, buildings, waste management and domestic fuel use are central to this effort.

Agriculture and transport between them account for around half of Ireland’s emissions. Agriculture alone accounts for 30% and increased by 0.2% in 2010. The government’s current agricultural policy is set out in Food Harvest 2020. This strategy document envisages a 50% increase in milk output by 2020. Clearly, it will be impossible to reduce or even contain emissions from agriculture if the number of dairy cows increases rapidly over the next 8 years.

There are other goals we can adopt in agriculture. There are strong arguments to increase the income of farm families by adding value on the farm – rather than focusing on the volume of goods produced. In this way there is scope to increase farm revenue without damaging our environment and the longer term prospects for food production. Concentrating on massive hikes in production – as Food Harvest 2020 does – is no guarantee of higher income.

Countries such as Austria are following a different vision to Ireland’s, working to minimise input costs (such as electricity and diesel), adding value at farm level using direct sales, and encouraging multi-product farming. At the centre of this approach is reconnecting farms and local economies, and the first steps in how this strategy could be applied in Ireland have already been documented.* Work is also slow in Ireland in terms of implementing feedmix changes and the use of biomass, and a greater focus here would deliver progress.

More sustainable transport and better agriculture policy are linked, if indirectly. Nothing damages local producers more than massive out-of-town hyper-markets served by vast expanses of free parking. Sadly, much of the floorspace in these stores tends to be given over to non-Irish produce, or products with limited country-of-origin information.

In 2009 the Government pledged to introduce minimum car parking charges at retail centres, much like the plastic bag levy. It won’t be a popular idea at the beginning – but it does offer long term dividends. Flagged in the Smarter Travel policy document two years ago, the idea would be to collect 20 to 25 cents for every 2 or 3 hours of parking at major retail outlets where parking is currently free. Again the vision is simple, to nudge us to leave the car behind if we can. If we can’t, the charge is not prohibitive – and it does provide much-needed revenue for public transport alternatives so that we can wean ourselves off our over-reliance on imported oil in the medium to long term.

A step-wise approach should be adopted, introducing the levy first at large retail centres which have more than, say, 40 parking spaces available for free. Some revenue would need to go to back the retailer in the initially period to pay for installing the car park charging system, but over time the money would be sent to local government to provide sustainable transport.

All of our cities are struggling to secure funds for bike-sharing. Dublin has ambitious plans to deliver a 9-fold increase in its programme, but lacks the money. Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford are all finding it very tough to even start bike-sharing programmes. In rural areas local authorities must do far more to deliver sustainable transport. At the very least councils need to finance structures so that vetted volunteers can offer lifts to people living in isolated areas, and pave the way for county-wide services over time.

When it comes to cutting emissions from the use of energy in new homes, offices and other premises, we should, within a short few years, only construct new buildings that generate as much energy as is required for their occupation – i.e. carbon-neutral buildings.

For the most part, however, Ireland’s work is in retro-fitting existing buildings, with a document published by the Institute of International and European Affairs in September (“Thinking Deeper: Financing Options for Home Retrofit”) pointing the way in this regard. Minister Hogan controls Ireland’s stock of social housing and can lead the way in this area.

Turning to waste management, EU policy has been shifting for some time, but moved decisively in September 2011. From 2020 only material which cannot be recycled should be incinerated according to the European Commission’s “Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe”, a new policy that also applies to incineration with energy recovery. Incineration causes far more climate-altering emissions than recycling.

The most effective policy step to ensure recyclables are in fact recycled is to have incinerator levies. Critically, incinerator levies will help to ensure Ireland does not start burning recyclables only to be forced into a costly switch in direction in 8 years time. The Minister will need to change course here but the cost of not doing so is simply too high.

Applying a levy at the rate recommended by the ESRI (and there are strong arguments that this level is too low), waste fed into an incinerator would be charged at €10 per tonne. There is also no sense in having the ash that comes out of incinerators exempt from the landfill levy. For every 4 tonnes incinerated there is roughly 1 tonne of bottom ash which should, in 2012, be levied at the landfill rate of €65 per tonne. Over the course of 2012 the Carranstown incinerator in County Meath is expected to burn 200,000 tonnes of waste. Unless incinerator levies are introduced for next year, €5.25 million will be turned away from near-empty State coffers over the coming 12 months.

Coal and peat are the most polluting fuels. The failure to apply the carbon levy to both is likely to prove contrary to European competition law – and it means that the carbon levy isn’t really about minimising carbon, but is just another revenue-raising tool. Coal and peat need to be brought within the carbon levy from mid 2012 onwards. This will also give a much-needed boost to the wood sector in Ireland. Much of our private forest stock needs to be thinned out (to allow the rest of the timber to mature properly), and applying the carbon levy to the most polluting fuels will deliver job creation right across this sector well into the medium and long term.

The truth is that no sector can be indulged when it comes to emissions reductions. The recent review completed by Minister Hogan’s own department was downbeat about Ireland meeting its climate obligations under EU law. An attempt to give any sector a ‘free pass’ on emissions would compound the pressure on all other sectors. Cutting climate change emissions requires a hard-minded approach across all policy areas – and soon.

Minister Hogan has deferred legislation on climate change in favour of policy reform – but whether there is in fact commitment regarding policy measures remains to be seen. Certainly, come Ireland’s Presidency of the EU on 1 Jan 2013, Minister Hogan will have not have credibility unless it is clear – sector-by-sector – how Ireland will meet its 2020 commitment.

*Sage, Re-imagining the Irish foodscape, Irish Geography, 2010.