Leo Vardakar launched his Climate Plan to much fanfare. But will these proposals really make a difference? Owen McCormack thinks not, arguing the plan is a ruse to protect corporate interests, whilst deflecting the blame on to ordinary people.
The launch of the Government’s Climate Plan has been described as “innovative”, “system changing” and “radical” by some commentators who really should know better. The reality, I’m afraid, couldn’t be further from the truth. Vardakar’s plan claims to have 182 “actions” that are meant to address the unfolding environmental catastrophe. But they will in fact do no such thing. That is because behind all the bluster remains a neoliberal agenda, wedded to a free market that will never resolve the core issues behind climate change.
Consider this; our government currently supports the building of LNGs (Liquefied Natural Gas) and new airport runways, defends the rights of Exxon and others to continue fossil fuel exploration and production. All of these issues, evidently, are worsening our environment. And yet, Fine Gael have now decided that the real cause of climate chaos is not in fact the big corporations. Instead it is ordinary workers in petrol and diesel cars, and the poorly insulated houses they drive home to.
Who really believes that the plan, therefore, is anything more than an effort to shift the blame for climate change away from corporations and onto ordinary people. Everywhere in this plan, the emphasis is on individual actions and responsibility. It rails against ordinary people, stating;
“Those inflicting the damage do not pay the cost of the damage they inflict. This is the rationale for charging a carbon price for carbon emissions which reflects the growing damage that they are inflicting. This serves to discourage emissions and to make carbon abatement more profitable.”
Nothing about the responsibility of CEOs or shareholders, never mind the fossil fuel companies themselves.
Varadkar’s plan is aimed at the upper middle classes. As such, it offers up the prospect of loans to retro fit your home, (something that can cost over 50 thousand euro); incentives to buy an Electric Car; and incentives to get a low carbon heat pump. On the other side it offers punishments for those who can’t afford to buy an EV (Electric Vehicle) or retro fit their homes or change their heating system. The plan is an elaborate PR exercise to justify carbon taxes on ordinary people. Diesel prices will rise and motor tax increases will target non EV drivers. Those that can’t afford to buy EVs will be forbidden from entering city’s and towns or face congestion charges.
The document is obsessed with EVs and incentivising businesses. It wants to increase the number of EVs to almost a million vehicles in just 11 years. Nobody bothered to calculate the amount of CO2 such a market would produce globally. In comparison, it has little concrete to say about Public Transport. It mentions the electrification of 3 suburban Dublin rail lines, but not until 2027. It also briefly references the BusConnects plan; which would see a modest increase in the numbers of Dublin’s buses compared to 10 years ago but nothing like the numbers needed to make a real difference and encourage people out of cars.
Off shore and on shore wind will likely be privatised, resulting in private companies controlling renewable energy, just as the giant fossil fuel companies do with oil and gas. Indeed, the whole switch to renewables is dependent on private companies making a profit and on international finance providing the funding.
The plan, therefore, is entirely dependent on the profit margins of international finance. Bizarrely it openly proposes to increase the amount of electricity Ireland consumes by 50% by 2030, confidently predicting that over 30% of this will be needed for the vast array of multinational data centres that are locating here.
Indeed, the suggestion for dealing with this increased energy demand: Corporate Power Purchasing Agreements (CPPAs), this is where the data centres sign up to buy energy from a renewable energy company like a wind farm. It essentially means the plan is to insure the privatisation of both the production of renewable energy and the consumption of that energy. Tax incentives and fast tracked planning will make life easy for both the data centre and the private renewable energy company.
In the same week Coillte and the ESB announced plans to set up a new company to build wind farms on 50 sites owned by Coillte (state lands). A good start, you might think, in the state taking a leading role? However, once built they plan to sell them to private companies. Again the potential precious renewable resource built with public finance on public lands would be sold off under these schemes.
The plan is unapologetic about its disastrous agricultural and forestry polices. It will keep growing the national herd for export regardless of the emissions; these will grow to 21MtCO2e by 2030. Coillte will continue to plant and harvest commercial plantations. In an action that would be funny if it were not so serious, the plan even has a clause (No 127) that proudly promises us to;
“Increase forest road construction to facilitate increased mobilisation of timber from existing private forests that are suitable for thinning. Step up required action in kilometres of road constructed from 2018 levels (72 km) to at least 125 km per year by 2020”
A Step Forward?
While some in the environmental movement may claim the plan is a start, the reality is it’s simply a continuation of the same failed policy and ideology. But more importantly, it simply won’t work; it won’t reduce or stop CO2 emissions on anything like the scale or speed needed. It leaves completely unaffected the rights of corporations to keep producing and selling fossil fuels and leaves unchallenged their access to profits in doing so. In an economy that must keep expanding, it is almost irrelevant how large a percentage of the energy can be produced by renewable means. It will still mean huge volumes of CO2 being emitted, as the system expands either directly from fossil fuels or indirectly in related industries and from industrial agriculture.
Some in the environmental movement have been talking positively about the “Governance” parts of the plans. These are meant to be a great leap forward. They include promises of legally binding targets, a Dáil oversight committee and an empowered Climate Advisory Council. These measures will mean little in reality, as the entire scheme is still beholden to the free market with no interference in the activity of corporations envisaged.
Nowhere does the plan talk of a Climate Emergency or suggest that there is a real crisis. Compare this “action” plan to the last time the Irish state declared an emergency. When the banks were bailed out in 2008, the Dáil sat late into the night and passed emergency legislation that gave wide ranging powers to the Government to act. Of course, the actions taken by the then Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition were a disgrace, slashing worker’s pay, pensions and public services. But no one can deny that they responded to this emergency with some urgency, albeit at the behest of the interests of the wealthy. By comparison, Leo Varadkar’s plan aims “to nudge” people along, and not touch businesses or corporations! Some emergency!
The biggest problem with the plan aside from the fact that it won’t reduce CO2 emissions is its slavish devotion to free markets and international finance. It sees the climate catastrophe as a business opportunity. Just as Ireland was clever in getting international financial services to set up in Dublin to run scams and tax avoidance schemes in the past, so the plan hopes that similar “innovation” and expertise can once again attract new international firms here. This time instead of tax avoidance schemes, the lure will be to profit from the climate breakdown. The shamelessness of this is breath taking. The very financial service sector that was instrumental in the last economic crisis and that has robbed many countries of its tax base that is needed to deal with climate change is now lauded as a sector to be courted.
What, then, is a socialist alternative to Varadkar’s botched plan? Firstly, we don’t start by blaming the individual. Instead we begin by looking at the systemic cause of climate change and CO2 emissions. That means tackling the fossil fuel industry, cutting off its profits and stopping the building on any infrastructure connected to it. It also means taking renewable energies into public ownership and planning for a massive switch to all renewable forms of energy such as off shore wind. Only then can we democratically plan what is needed and to cut CO2 emissions.
Many of the measures we need to take to reduce CO2 emissions would improve people’s lives; frequent and free public transport; warmer, better insulated homes rolled out in a state led retro- fitting programme; a shift away from an industrial model of agriculture to one that rewards and supports ordinary farmers in moving to a more ecologically friendly method of growing the food we need. It requires massive investment in these areas and coordinated plans, not competitive tenders for off shore wind farms or market deregulation in energy supplies, nor the privatisation of key state companies. These are the policies we need, and they are the policies that this government consistently ignores.
Is it even possible, therefore, to think we can win these kind of policies? Yes, I believe we can. But we have a big argument to win. The limits on how fast we can decarbonise are presented as simple facts. We are told there will be a need for gas and oil even beyond 2050. As Richard Bruton said recently while defending continued fossil fuel exploration “sometimes the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine”. The natural limitations of renewable energies are offered as explanation for continued support for oil and gas exploration.
The intermittency of renewables is one road block. We are also warned that renewables are too expensive, that large scale shifts would require massive mining of precious and scarce metals and minerals to cope with the demand for battery and storage technologies. Other experts will look at present and future projections of energy demands and proclaim that unless we embrace nuclear power we are not serious about any decarbonising project.
In fact the key issue here is not a technical one or an insurmountable engineering problem; it is political. The technical capacity to shift away from fossil fuel use exists and has for some time.
There are issues and problems, of course, but they are not impossible to overcome in any technical sense; they become insurmountable only because of the lack of political will to implement them, because capitalism and free markets constantly need to expand and because of the continued power and reach of the fossil fuel corporations.
The Alternative is There
Ireland, and other western economies can decarbonise, do it rapidly and dramatically reduce CO2 emissions by 2030 and reach carbon neutrality in energy systems in a matter of decades. These things are entirely possible with existing levels of engineering, technical capacity and existing levels of resources.
In Britain the Zero Carbon Britain research project from the Centre for Alternative Technologies showed that in theory there are feasible solutions to the issues often raised against renewable energies replacing fossil fuels.
These don’t rely on nuclear power or environmentally damaging biofuels. A large part of the answer is off shore wind energy married to other innovations. This would require large scale investments of the kind that only a state could provide in order to achieve the changes needed and in the time frame allowed to limit temperature rises to under 1.5 degrees.
In Ireland, a similar plan has been devised by some engineers with expertise in energy systems and grids. Green Plan Ireland is a peer-reviewed study that was published in the International Journal of Sustainable Energy Planning and Management.
Both plans have things in common, such as reducing levels of CO2 by ending energy waste and cutting the amount of energy we consume. This is entirely possible and doesn’t mean reducing people’s standard of living. But it threatens the very nature and existence of capitalism which must grow and consume more to just stand still. The way we produce and distribute electricity involves a huge amount of waste; the author of the Green Plan Ireland points out that at Moneypoint 60% of the energy produced is wasted with the remaining 40% producing the electricity we use. Similar waste exists at all stages of the energy chain. Plans that can dramatically cut CO2 emissions hinge on stopping that waste, on investing in off shore and on shore wind, and on decentralising much of the energy production and distribution. Ironically, much of what we need to do would improve the quality of ordinary people’s lives but threatens the profits and wealth of some of the world’s richest people. Such measures also undermine the very ideology that runs capitalism today with its emphasis on privatisation and deregulated free markets.
The future of the planet and its people are threatened as never before. The Government plan will lead nowhere, only increasing the burden on ordinary people for a crisis they didn’t create. Demands for them to change their behaviour won’t solve the crisis. We need a much more radical plan of action.