Sunday 22 June 2008

Cowen picks economist as key policy adviser

TAOISEACH BRIAN Cowen has appointed a high-profile environmental economist with a strong track record in environmental issues, and an outspoken critic of decentralisation, as his special policy adviser.

The appointment of Dr Peter Clinch (37), the Jean Monnet Professor of European Environmental Policy at UCD since 2003, signals a shift of policy direction by the new Taoiseach compared to his predecessor Bertie Ahern. One source said that the arrival of a non-orthodox economist will result in "new thinking" in Government policymaking.

It is expected that Dr Clinch's main task will be to advise policy initiatives that will help the Government meet climate change targets while maintaining a secure economy.

Dr Clinch told The Irish Times last night that one of the Government's biggest challenges will be meeting the Kyoto Protocol commitments and the EU's target of a 20 per cent cut in the State's greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

He added that he was impressed by Mr Cowen's commitments in this regard and his clear interest in these policy areas. He also said Mr Cowen was very committed to making decisions based on sound evidence and research.

"If you read the Taoiseach's acceptance speech, it concerns itself with the relationship between the economy and the environment . . . The market economy does not have to be the enemy of the environment," said Dr Clinch.

When the EU announced in January that Ireland would need to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2020, the Government said it raised serious economic and social issues for the State. The targets are considered demanding and the challenge facing Mr Cowen is to find the appropriate balance of achieving them without causing damage to the economy.

Dr Clinch said he had little hesitation in taking up the position. "It was very clear that he wanted somebody who uses a strong technical basis for advice . . . It was not something that I could easily turn down."

Dr Clinch holds a second professorship in planning at UCD and is a former employee of the World Bank. He has been a consistent critic of the Government's decentralisation policy. In several articles, he has argued that it is flawed, will do little for regional balance, and could lead to reduced economic growth.

A strong advocate of evidence-based policymaking, he has been scathing in the past of what he has described as "back of the envelope opportunistic policymaking".

He has also written in favour of carbon taxes and against what he referred to as the "flimsy detail" contained in Transport 21. On the question of carbon taxes, he says there are misconceptions about the priorities of environmental economists. "An environmental economist is just as interested in the economy as in the environment," he argued.

"It's about finding the appropriate balance. I am just as likely to be critical of an environmentalist as I am of those who have no interest in the environment."

Irish Times

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