One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 is to write more about climate change and the environment. The reasons are: firstly, this is quite simply the existential issue of our age, and one that our politicians in both Irish jurisdictions largely ignore; secondly, there is only so much one can write about people retreating to their tribal trenches in Brexit-bewitched Northern Ireland; and thirdly, maybe, just maybe, the huge threat of climate change is one that could get both politicians and people on this island working together.
I will be expanding my coverage of our imperilled island – and imperilled world – through interviews with a range of leaders of opinion in this vital area. I am starting with the Green Party leader in the Republic, Eamon Ryan. It is wonderfully refreshing to meet a political leader who is so idealistic, hopeful in the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles, and fizzing with new ideas.
Ryan believes the one thing the Irish government – a disgraceful laggard in European terms when it comes to climate change action – can do immediately is to agree to People Before Profit TD Brid Smyth’s bill to stop the government issuing any more oil and gas exploration licences off the Irish coast. This is currently in committee stage in the Oireachtas despite the government’s determined opposition. ‘We know that four-fifths of already discovered fossil fuel reserves will have to stay in the ground if we are to avoid runaway climate change’, says Ryan. ‘There have been 140 attempts to drill for oil and gas in Irish waters, up to 200 miles out into the Atlantic, at a cost of around €100 million a go, and only three small pockets of gas have been discovered. We should be spending those sums on investing instead in renewable energy – wind and wave – bringing it ashore on the west coast, and using it to build new industries there.’
He concedes that stopping this unsuccessful and expensive policy won’t help Ireland meet its immediate carbon reduction targets. ‘But it will send a signal, internationally and to the Irish public, that we know that in the next decade and a half we have to stop the use of of fossil fuels and replace them with a more earth-protecting alternative.’ He wants the money saved on stopping oil and gas exploration to go towards three major projects, and he is nothing if not ambitious.
Firstly, there is offshore wind, which he says is now competitive in price. Here he proposes a major offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea (similar to the General Electric-owned farm off Arklow but bigger), that would also connect, through the Isle of Man, with the British grid. Secondly, he wants the government to support investment in the kind of very large floating wind turbines in the Atlantic that have been pioneered off the coasts of Norway and the north of Scotland (and in the US, China and Japan). ‘Our sea area is 10 times as large as our land area, and we now know, with reasonable certainty, that over the next 10-15 years we could deploy and become good at this kind of large-scale technology.’
Thirdly he wants the electrification of the heating systems in the million Irish homes with oil-fired central heating through the installation of heat pumps. Heat pumps use a small amount of energy to pull heat out of the air and ground to heat a well-insulated house or other building, and can also be reversed to cool such a building. Ryan stresses that this is not a small or cheap project, with a cost of €40,000 per house for such ‘retrofitting’. But over time it would greatly reduce the €6 billion per year we currently spend on importing oil and gas from faraway places like Russia and Saudi Arabia. He estimates the cost of retrofitting every social house and public building (notably schools and hospitals) in the country at €50 billion. Ireland would be one of the first countries in the world to tackle energy efficiency in buildings on this enormous scale. And we are starting from an extremely low base: only around a hundred houses every year are retrofitted at present, with even the not very ambitious National Development Plan saying this must rise to 45,000 houses per annum by 2021.
He also has radical ideas about transport. ‘We need a total change from the car-based, urban sprawl model. Electric cars are not a complete answer because even their manufacture consumes a large amount of resources. We need to radically improve and increase the cycling infrastructure, with a first priority being the ability of every child to cycle safely to school. We have to aim to emulate cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen; in the latter 30% of all trips are by bike, with the aim being to reach 50%. The figure in Dublin is 4-5%, so we need a tenfold increase in the amount of cycling.’ This will lead, among other things, to a major reduction in congestion in our car-clogged capital (a recent survey showed that Dublin drivers travel at the slowest city centre speeds in the world) and major health benefits for its inhabitants.
Ryan dreams of an Irish version of the Green New Deal, the policy programme American Democrats are currently debating which aims to wean the US off fossil fuels, curb greenhouse gas emissions and at the same time provide well-paid jobs in clean energy industries. He points out that his proposed retrofitting programme would require thousands of builders, engineers, electricians, plumbers and carpenters over the next 20 years to convert hundreds of thousands of houses. This will lead to a huge demand for skilled labour at a time when so much work is unskilled, precarious and threatened by automation and robotics. Because much of this new building work will be outside Dublin, it will not worsen the already overheated labour market in the capital’s construction sector.
He foresees young people from Kerry and Limerick and Galway and Donegal being attracted back from England and Australia to work on retrofitting projects in their home places and being able to afford to move back to those areas to live. He would like to see such a retrofitting programme start with social and rural housing, to convince people of modest means and living in isolated communities of its value for them.
The Green Party leader admits that to have any chance of beginning to see his dreams turn into reality, it needs to double its 2-3% electoral support so as to hold the balance of power and thus force the larger parties to take on at least some of its visionary programme. This is what the German Greens have done successfully, so that they are now winning 18-20% of the vote in states like Bavaria and Hesse, and forming part of governing coalitions in nine of Germany’s 16 state legislatures.
Ryan believes this is partly because they are listening to rural voters’ concerns, and making sure, for example, that farmer-owned local energy collectives get high prices for the wind and solar energy they produce. [‘That’s a very small example’, says a friend who knows Germany well. ‘The German Green vote is mainly an urban one and attracts those who are cosmopolitan and internationalist, but not neo-liberal, and who believe important questions like climate change, refugees and organised crime can best be dealt with by international organisations, above all the EU’].
Green parties vary markedly from country to country, but agree on one thing: ‘they have to make the new green economy a positive ‘we’ story that is both about quality of life and strength of community,’ says Ryan. However he recognises that the ‘Yellow Jackets’ – the people left behind by economic progress who can’t think beyond next week, let alone 12 years into a future of climate crisis – represent a real challenge for the Greens, as for all established political parties. ‘We have to listen to them, rather than look down on them, unlike a classic liberal elitist like Macron.’
He accepts that winning over the farming community will be a particular hurdle in Ireland. But he maintains that the current system based largely on meat and dairy is not good for its producers, with beef farmers, for example, earning an annual average wage of just €13,000. He has faith that a future Common Agricultural Policy, focused on protecting biodiversity and water quality and storing carbon, will serve the interests of the farmers rather than – at present – those of the big supermarket chains. As a non-expert, I remain a sceptic in this area.
The greatest challenge is for young people. The youth climate strike, in which Irish schoolchildren are playing their part, is the inspiration of the moment. The British environmental writer George Monbiot says the youth strikers need a short, simple story which goes something like this: ‘The world has been thrown into climate chaos, caused by fossil fuel companies, the billionaires who profit from them and the politicians they have bought. But we, the young heroes, will confront these oligarchs, using our moral authority to create a movement so big and politically dangerous that our governments are forced to shut down the fossil economy and restore the benign conditions in which humans and other species can thrive.’ It’s a big ask for schoolchildren and teenagers, a drastic reversal of the roles of caring adults and cared-for children. Ryan adds that young people will be concerned about more than the environment. They want to know about a safe and benign future, asking not only ‘What will I be doing in 12 years when I am living in an age of floods, drought, extreme heat and poverty?’ but also ‘What will I work at? How will I get a home? How will I have a family?’
For him too it is about the economy as well as the environment: ‘The old ways which saw Europe buying in resources from the rest of the world are at risk now: from China in manufacturing and the US in software development. Europe is in danger of doing nothing but consuming. We have to create new industries, particularly in the green economy, which are hyper-efficient and low carbon. Europe has a real opportunity to take a lead here.’
The Greens, as an all-Ireland party, also have a strong North-South dimension, and it is a constructive and practical one. Ryan reminded me that during his time as Minister for Energy and Natural Resources between 2007 and 2011 he worked with Nigel Dodds and then Arlene Foster to develop an all-island electricity market, an all-island grid and a single all-island supply company, all with minimum controversy.
One can see how he worked well with DUP ministers. ‘My vision of an electricity system balanced between variable renewable energy supply and variable demand won’t work if we try to do it on this island alone – it has to be on a larger scale, involving inter-connectors with Britain and France. In the Brexit talks, we are stuck on the border issue, the sovereignty issue. Nobody is stuck on energy. Nobody disagrees that we must continue energy cooperation. Britain, whose energy prices are 50% higher than the EU average, knows that the only way it will keep its electricity prices down is through an inter-connector with the continent. We are equally pragmatic, and also know that most of our gas comes from the UK.’