The environment, stupid.
By Michael Smith
The Greens should insist on a proper environmental agenda in the programme for government – or pull out.
It is said that the Greens are looking for an excuse to pull out of government but that their experience on the doom-laden doorsteps of Ireland in the recent elections is suggesting that they need a big issue of principle to justify it.
If they are as true to their principles as they purport to be that issue should be an environmental one.
The Greens are renegotiating the programme for government. They have a golden opportunity in coming weeks to outline the elements of a real environmental agenda. If their partners in government do not like it, they can face the electorate content at least that they have properly served the environment which they know will be shown, long after the economic flux is fogotten, to be the agenda of our time.
Here are some suggestions as to how they should renegotiate the environmental agenda of government.
The Greens have been clear that climate change was so important that ethically it justified their entry into government, even if they had to compromise on other issues – like Bertie Ahern’s ethical disposition, co-location of hospitals and the road through Tara.
Carbon emissions are qualitatively different from the other policies the Greens should demand. Unless their carbon agenda is incorporated it should be an article of faith that the Greens would withdraw from government.
If the climate warms by over another 1.4 degrees Centigrade we risk the onset of “critical positive feedbacks” like methane-production from melting permafrost and damage to the Amazon forest seriously start to kick in. If the Greens cannot be serious about climate change they cannot be serious about anything – yet experts agree that the targets set by Kyoto and the EU, let alone the pattern set by Ireland, will not stop that warming by the end of the century. The Greens have a moral obligation to address the disjuncture between science and politics.
They should leave government unless a Carbon Act is introduced providing for binding annual three per cent reductions in carbon emissions – but benchmark the reductions against our so-called natural growth rate rather than against our anomalous, and presumably temporary, negative actual growth. If they are ever to address the science of global warming the Greens are going to have to communicate the tough message about lifestyle changes they have so far avoided. In particular we need to reduce the CO2 emissions associated with our agriculture which constitute 27% of national emissions and our dependence on private transport, particularly cars. Transport accounts for 18.4% of total national greenhouse gas emissions, with road transport accounting for an estimated 93% of them.
They should leave government unless a carbon tax is introduced by the end of the year. As long ago as 2000 Fianna Fail promised they would introduce one in 2002!
They should leave government unless the new €200m runway for Dublin airport is scrapped. Its opening has reportedly been delayed by three or four years from 2014 but if we’re still thinking new runways are sustainable in 2018 we may as well turn the lights out. Air travel, the preserve of the middle classes, which probably causes more than seven percent of global warming, is the one carbon-profligate sector where there is unlikely to be a technical fix. There is no alternative to reducing it.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s figures showed emissions decreased in 2007 by one per cent. That is two per cent less than the Greens promised.
Commentators care so little about global warming that when the Coalition complained about the stringency of EU emission targets that were actually lower than the ones the government is allegedly committed to, no-one seemed to notice.
1 They should set planning targets. They should shift the figures for one-off housing and development in Meath, Wicklow and Kildare towards development in cities outside Dublin. It is the figures that matter not the generation of minor, heated controversies in particular counties that so please wooly-minded Irish Times commentators. Establish a land-use commission, packed with worthies, that guarantees development complies with official policy like the spatial strategy and regional guidelines – which are currently flouted. The planning bill provide that development plans must comply with these other plans that are higher up the planning hierarchy but – as ALWAYS – no mechanism applies if the authorities flout the so-called “obligation”.
2 They should remove the provision in the current planning bill that planning permissions that do not go ahead because of economic conditions can be extended by five years. It is a classic case of FF backwoodsmanship that the Greens could have been expected to outmanoeuvre. It would extend permissions for the sprawl and one-off housing that have so undermined our national spatial strategy. Any extension should at the very least require an assessment by An Bord Pleanála as to compliance of old applications with current planning standards. While the assessment should be expeditious and cost-free to the developer, simply re-opening the door to the Neanderthal anti-environmental decisions of the last five years would be a Green sellout.
3 They should make the over-hyped and under-questioned renewables targets and strategies of Eamon Ryan and the ESB mandatory rather than aspirational. It is exciting that the Greens have established 2020 targets for renewable energy of 40 per cent and that 10% of all cars should be electric, as part of the new strategy by Government to make the “green economy”. The ESB’s Strategic Framework to 2020 envisages expenditure of €4bn in renewable energy projects and €6.5bn “facilitating” renewables including through smart metering and smart networks. It intends raising between €1 billion and €1.5 billion from the capital markets within a year and a half, “depending on market conditions and other factors”. but there are no guarantees and against the current budgetary and banking backgrounds it is predictable that they will be among the first cuts.
It is worrying, for example that, regarding the elecric car rollout in May the Irish Times quoted Ryan on the feasibility of the targets, saying that he “does not get hung up on whether his plan is under- or over-ambitious”.
This is exactly what he should get hung up on. The greens need to realise that strategies, targets and monitoring are what delivers results – not rhetoric and aspirations.
4 They should introduce quality of life indicators
Makes sure we assess the success of society by social and environmental indicators not just economic ones. As Warren Buffett says – of Companies – the crucial starting point for success is to know how we’re doing. If we want a contented society we should seek as even Tory leader David Cameron has recognised we should assess the success of society not on GDP alone but also on indicators of up to a hundred factors in society such as commuting times, leisure time, access to the countryside, sense of community, water quality, unemployment, educational levels, crime levels and so on.
5 They should implement the Kenny Report
The Programme for government promises that “Legislation will be brought forward on foot of the recommendations of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution on Property Rights”. Contrary to Bertie Ahern’s confused ramblings on the subject this committee found no difficulty with the Kenny Report’s central: ‘It is very likely that the major elements of the Kenny Report recommendations – namely that land required for development purposes by local authorities should be cumpulsorily acquired at existing use values [i.e. with no allowance for any speculative value]. But this is not happening. The Greens have clearly taken their off this most important ball. The Greens planning bill proposes that after a lengthy and cumbersome procedure landowners who are not making their land available for sustainable development should face a 5% annual site-value tax. Where Kenny proposed recalcitrant landowners could lose 100% of their land, the Greens propose a 5% annual tax which simply would not achieve the move to a plan-led not developer-led planning system which they purport to believe in.
6 They should shift transport from road to rail and bus. The 18bn of government funds envisaged in the Programme for Government roads expenditure has been reduced so that all new roads must be public private partnerships or funded by the pension funds. If the Programme can be changed in that way the Greens should push for substantive changes in the €18bn of roads that are being built under the Programme for Government, to allow only of schemes proposed in the National Roads Authority’s Roads Needs Study. Eamon Ryan was quoted before the Greens went into government saying they would order the NRA to revisit the roads programme. They should certainly be looking for an official end to, for example, plans for the Leinster Outer Orbital Route which would trace a new road arc further out than the M50, and the Eastern Bypass under Sandymount Strand. The Greens have achieved precisely nothing to reduce the aggressive roads programme. In 2009 another 156km of new roads will be opened by the NRA.
As James Nix argues elsewhere in this edition of Village, they should spend more money on buses. Where the economy patently needs pump-priming and where every boomtown cabbie berated government for not planning for economic growth, the time is right now to spend on public-transport infrastructure.
Smarter Travel – A Sustainable Transport Future was a positive Noel Dempsey-Eamon Ryan Policy initiative earlier this year but much of it is aspirational, it is stated to be ”a matter for decisions by government in the light of prevailing economic and budgetary parameters” and it will not go far against the background of the induced car-demand that will follow the expenditure of €18bn on roads. The Policy envisages legislating for a sustainable transport hierarchy with public ahead of private transport. However, it is clear that the legislation will not be introduced until after the roads programme is complete for sustainability, the environment and transportation in this country are regarded by government as little more than opportunities for hypocritical rhetoric.
The Programme for Government said they would “Conduct feasibility studies to be completed in two years into Luas-style light rail transit systems in Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford”. The Greens should expedite this moribund commitment.
7 They should change the provision in the recently-published planning bill that would revive expiring planning permissions if economic difficulties have delayed a particular development. Following aggressive lobbying by the FF/developer lobby (they haven’t gone away) the Greens are on the verge of extending the life of planning permissions such as the Clarence Hotel demolition as well as the sprawl that is characteristic of most planning permissions granted over the last five years and now lapsing.
8 They should improve the quality of developments. They should tax-incentivise world-class developments on a sliding scale so that developments that are socially, environmentally and economically excellent get a 100% break while the usual Irish rubbish gets hammered through penal taxes.
They should change the criterion for a planning permission from “proper planning and sustainable development” to “proper planning and sustainable development and excellence of design”. That way we could in stroke become the best-designed country in the world.
8 They should change heritage legislation to provide explicitly for recognition of “archaeological landscapes” such as Tara. They should make it clear that the “exceptional circumstances” in which a protected structure may be demolished do not include economics.
9 They should introduce wide-ranging ethics in government legislation. The Greens had no ethics policies in their election manifesto and the programme for government is mute.
It is not enough for the Greens to be against “corporate donations” when large donations from private individuals are precisely as problematic. So far their record in government is vastly inferior to that of the Labour party. They should insist on: a ban on corporate donations, a reduction in Freedom of Information fees, whistleblower legislation, a commitment to transparent appointments, a requirement that political parties publish audited accounts for expenditure other than that received from the State or for private donations over €5,080.
10 The greens need to be hard-minded, strategic and goal-oriented – businesslike really, because traditionally governmental environmental goals have been aspirational and insincere. They should set priorities and targets, and monitor them e.g. have clear numerical goals for carbon reductions, proportions of housing in cities outside Dublin, one-off housing, water purity, public-private transport modal split, compliance with outstanding judgments of the European Court of Justice etc. At the moment most people cannot see whether Ireland is improving its environmental performance, even on supposed dealbreakers for the Greens like climate change and planning. That needs to change. Commentators are typically significantly less green than the Greens and so they give them the unwarranted benefit of the doubt.
Without this all else will fail.