Friday, 7 December 2007

Undramatic yet promising start on rocky emissions road

IT WASN’T very dramatic in the end — after all carbon emissions are as exciting as double physics on a Monday morning in January — but yesterday was the day when the Green Party justified itself in government.

John Gormley’s carbon budget was the first of its kind ever attempted in Western Europe and the Environment Minister accepted that in some ways it was a shot in the dark.

“The concept of the carbon budget is new, and this year’s format can be seen as a pilot. I will consider how its content and format will be developed and improved in future years,” he said.

What Gormley got from Tánaiste Brian Cowen was the go-ahead for the much-touted 3% reduction in carbon emissions. And yesterday Gormley essentially painted a picture of where we are now and where we need to be in 2012. Moreover, he announced the first measures needed in order to reach those ambitious targets.

The 2006 figures will show that Ireland emitted 70 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent that year. To meet the 3% annual reduction and to meet our Kyoto targets, we need to reduce that by an average of 6 million tonnes each year.

It’s a huge ask and will mean some pain. Gormley accepted that we might not achieve it but he said it would not be for the want of trying.

“We are not making it easy on ourselves. There is always a danger we may fail. We have set the bar high in striving for a 3% annual reduction,” he said yesterday.

And to that end, when you look at the chart produced, it looks very like the Government will have to rely on what is euphemised as ‘flexible methods’. In simple terms, that means a carbon fund. At the moment we have €290m invested in it. In opposition, the Greens railed against it saying Ireland was buying its way out of its Kyoto commitments. But even with the new political dispensation, we may still need to rely on it. Note the subtle use of language in Gormley’s Dáil speech:

“I recognise, as Al Gore did when he was in Dublin last weekend, that flexible mechanisms are an integral part of the Kyoto Protocol agreement and an important instrument in promoting low emissions investment in developing countries. Notwithstanding this, the Government is committed to ensuring Ireland is able to fulfil its commitments by emission reductions.”

The message is: we may have to resort (reluctantly, sure) to some buying our way out of the problem.

There were positives yesterday: the new measures that will phase out traditional incandescent light bulbs in favour of energy-efficient ones; the new motor tax system that will be based on emissions not engine size; and the mandatory environment label system for cars.

But it’s all about Lord Make Me Green, but not yet. The new system for light bulbs will not arrive until 2009. And despite the changes in vehicle registration tax being flagged in last year’s budget, they won’t be introduced until July.

And it has generally been recognised that to achieve a 3% reduction in CO2, the Government will have to introduce a carbon tax. This was in the 2002 Government’s programme but was ditched in 2004. Now it’s back on the agenda. But Brian Cowen announced on Wednesday that the issue has been kicked to touch, with a Commission for Taxation being established. When will it decide? How long is a piece of string?

Still, yesterday was a good start for the Greens and for Gormley. It was an undramatic yet promising start for the carbon budget.

There is still a long way to go on the road to reach the targets but at least Gormley and the Greens have finally got their hands on a road map.

Irish Examiner

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