The rubber is about to meet the road. Until now Ireland’s commitment to greenhouse gas reduction has been all about hard-to-grasp figures. For example, Ireland has an allowance of 495 megatonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent until 2030; go figure.
This week was when politicians began to really discover what all this will actually mean, and how it will change our lives.
The Oireachtas Committee on the Environment and Climate Change met three times to discuss the two five-year carbon budgets proposed by the Climate Change Advisory Council. The council has recommended annual reductions of 4.8 per cent in emissions between 2021 and 2025 (that’s 24 per cent overall) and annual reductions of 8.3 per cent between 2026 and 2030 (that 41.5 per cent overall).
The Oireachtas must approve the CCAC recommendation, particularly its conclusion that reductions should be heavily back loaded until the second half of the decade.
What emerged at the committee hearings, chaired by Green Party TD Brian Leddin, was sobering. Politicians had to take a bite of a reality sandwich, and the public will have to do so in time.
The realities spelt out in the committee rooms were stark. A number of independent scientists argued that even the CCAC recommendations will not bring Ireland anywhere close enough to achieve the Paris Accord target of keeping global warming to no more than 1.5 Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Prof Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester reminded the committee that Taoiseach Micheál Martin told COP 26 in Glasgow that as political leaders “it is our responsibility to put the necessary policies in place. Ireland is ready to play its part.”
Prof Anderson said that for Ireland to achieve that 1.5 per cent target its annual reductions of emissions needed to be in the order of a whopping 30 per cent per annum (he included aviation and shipping). Remember that in 2019 the then government was saying Ireland would struggle to reduce emissions by 2 per cent per annum.
Prof Anderson, Prof Barry McMullin and Paul Price of DCU and John Sweeney (emeritus professor from the University of Maynooth) all argued the carbon budgets needed to go further than the CCAC proposals. When the academics were asked what measures would be needed, it was then it became dramatic.
The one that grabbed most attention was the suggestion that rationing of fossil fuels such as petrol and diesel be introduced. There were other suggestions such as an immediate halt to forest felling, halting peat extraction (huge volumes continue to be exported for gardening); reductions of the national herd, as well as restrictions for drivers (including paid congestion zones in cities).
Some of the politicians baulked at such astringent medicine. Richard Bruton of Fine Gael (who as Minister brought forward climate change legislation) said those solutions were not realistic.
Calling for more restrictions was “pretty aggressive”, he said, when the CCAC’s recommendations were already being regarded by politicians as an impossible task.
“We don’t have unfettered capacity to implement changes such as the rationing as described. You would have to be conscious of the reaction of the Maillots Jaunes (Yellow Vest protesters) in France to much more modest proposals (on fuel prices).”
Bruton argued the CCAC was giving politicians the best shot to make real inroads. Introducing “top-down” rationing of fossil fuel to business and homes was not “practical politics”, he contended.
In fairness to the scientists, they said if Ireland wanted to meet the 1.5 per cent that’s what needed to be done. The science does not lie. Downplaying it, or pretending there was a choice in the matter, did not help, said Prof McMullin.
That was the first of two big yawning gaps that emerged during the week. This one was between science and politics. The second gap is the one that exists between when a political decision is made, when (or if) it is actually implemented.
It’s not as if the CCAC kicked to touch. It has presented only a slightly less scary prospect than the independent scientists did. Its members, including Marie Donnelly, spoke to the committee on Tuesday. We learned it had looked at drafting the carbon budgets not just through the prism of science. A member of the council, Prof Briain Ó Gallachóir of UCC. told the committee on Tuesday that it “looked at impacts on the economy, employment, competitiveness and climate justice”.
Cumulatively the two budgets will allow Ireland emissions to be reduced by half by 2030. The first half of the decade is slightly easier but it’s still daunting. One of the big messages from the Greens in the run-up to the 2020 election was the potential for carbon sinks through rewetting bogs and more afforestation. Is that going to happen between now and 2030? Speaker after speaker who appeared before the committee said not a chance.
The prospects for Ireland’s forests were particularly depressing. Complicated licensing and felling laws, reluctance by farmers to consider forestry as an option, an over-concentration on Sitka Spruce and inadequate policies have led to a huge crisis. Andrew St Ledger of the Environment Pillar said that afforestation levels were at their lowest since the 1930s.
The CCAC’s Donnelly intimated the forests and bogs – one of our great bankers as a carbon sink – will actually become net emitters of greenhouse gasses within the next few years.“Even if we planted half of Ireland today we wouldn’t have a sink in place by 2030,” she said.
Dr David Styles of the UL said that a million hectares (out of 7 million hectares) was needed for afforestation and rewetting, but its benefits would not be felt until after 2040.
Likewise, the long odds of getting 1 million electric vehicles (EVs) on Irish roads by 2030. Dr Hannah Daly of UCC pointed out that there were 4,000 EVs sold last year but 11,000 SUVs at the same time. Her argument? Signals must change if behaviour is to change.
The first carbon budget has already started and we are travelling in the wrong direction. Right now the emissions trajectory for both agriculture and transport is going up not down.
Plenty of times during the week we returned to farming and what comprised a fair share of the burden. The IFA argued that it should be asked to deliver no more than a minimum 22 per cent in reductions (meaning more reductions for other sectors). That would involve no reduction in herd numbers.
Farming has based its argument on per-unit carbon efficiency. That’s all well and good yet, overall, the agrifood industry (especially dairy) continues to expand. Social Justice Ireland in particular pointed out this contradiction. “Increases in herd sizes on dairy farms is undermining any gains from more efficient and sustainable farming practices,” it argued.
Somebody once said that political reform is like taking a dog from a bone. The problem is there is no painless way of achieving it. The debate on farming is probably the best example of that.
The majority of those who appeared do not oppose the carbon budgets set out by the CCAC. Everybody seems to agree with emissions reductions in principle. But when it comes to implementing reductions in real life, they then oppose it.
Government rejects calls to introduce a right to work from home
The Government has rejected calls to introduce a right to work from home, promising instead to legislate for a right for employees to request home-working.
Opposition politicians have called for a right to work remotely.
However, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar said that while the Government’s proposed Bill would require employers to consider such requests, they would still be able to reject them.
He argued that employers are more likely to grant requests to work from home for fear of being brought to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) – which will be the appeals mechanism in the new law.
Cabinet is set to consider the proposals as hundreds of thousands of workers face a gradual return to the office over the coming weeks.
Unions have said that employers must consult with their members about the return to on-site working and ICTU chief Patricia King warned that some workers will not be able to return for health reasons.
Mr Varadkar said new safety protocols are to be published by the end of the week as he spoke about the Government’s plans to legislate for the right to request remote working.
The proposed Bill will set out a legal framework whereby an employer can either approve or reject a request to work remotely from an employee.
‘Change the culture’
Social Democrats co-leader Catherine Murphy has said the Government must give workers a legal right to work remotely, “not merely the right to request flexible working arrangements”.
She said the Government’s plan “does not go far enough” and “The default position should be that flexible working is permissible. It should not be at the whim of employers to accept it or reject it.”
Labour’s employment spokeswoman Senator Maire Sherlock has criticised the Government for not moving quicker to address the issue of people returning to the workplace and called for legislation that guarantees the right to flexible work.
Sinn Féin’s spokeswoman on Enterprise Louise O’Reilly said the planned legislation should be “more robust” and that no reasonable request from an employees should be refused.
She acknowledged that not all requests can be granted because not all work can be done remotely but said: “the emphasis should be on the right to have it rather than the right to ask for it”.
Mr Varadkar said there was a lot of work done with the Attorney General and “Government can only interfere in contracts that employers and employees have signed to a certain extent.”
He also pointed out that remote working isn’t always going to be possible – pointing to education, healthcare, manufacturing and hospitality as examples.
Mr Varadkar said: “What we want to do is get to a position whereby remote working/home working becomes a choice and that employers facilitate that provided the business gets done and provided public services don’t suffer.”
He said that the Government does not want things to go back to the old normal for working arrangements post-pandemic.
“We want to see more remote working, more home working, more hybrid working”.
Mr Varadkar said he believes the legislation can “change the culture” and that employers will embrace it.
Travel agents experiencing increase in bookings since Covid-19 restrictions eased
Travel agents are experiencing an increase in inquires and bookings since the government announced the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions on Friday.
Pat Dawson, CEO of the Irish Travel Agents Association, says there has been a “phenomenal” turn around in bookings, and travel agents are busy getting back to inquiries.
“We are looking at a healthy summer season, it’s the first time I’ve been positive in two years.”
He advised people to book their holidays early to avoid disappointment. “The longer you leave it, the dearer it will get. Mid-term break in February and Easter are almost full.”
Mr Dawson believes there is a pent-up demand. “There are some people who have money they haven’t spent, a big chunk of that will be spent on foreign holidays.”
John Spollen, director of Cassidy Travel in Dublin, says he has seen an increase in bookings over the weekend.
Popular destinations include Spain and Portugal, which have been Irish favourites for many years now, says Mr Spollen. There are also some bookings for the US, Jersey, Madeira and the Greek islands.
People should avoid peak travel times from mid June to the end of August and consider booking mid-week, early or late flights to get the best value, according to Mr Spollen.
“In May, September and October, the weather will be similar to summer weather.”
Mr Spollen added people should take out travel insurance and ensure their passport and driver’s licence are in date.
Michael Doorley of Shandon Travel in Cork said they have seen a huge increase in inquiries.
“We are not back to 2019 levels yet… the EU is a big destination. We have had a lot of inquires about mobile home holiday parks. Italy would be the most popular destination for this type of holiday, but Croatia is becoming almost as popular.”
There are also bookings for America coming in, as well as some couples celebrating their honeymoons belatedly, according to Mr Doorley.
It is important that people understand the restrictions in the country they are travelling to, he added, and they should check the Department of Foreign Affairs website regularly.
Aoife O’Donoghue is just one of the many Irish people who have not been on a holiday abroad in two years, and she is excited to be going to Barcelona at the end of March.
“A friend is moving over there in February, so myself and two other girls are going to visit her. It’s actually all our birthdays that weekend too,” she says.
The friends used to live together in Galway, and Ms O’Donoghue says it’s fantastic to have something to look forward to again.
The last time she went abroad was to Switzerland in January 2020. “Just as we were coming back there was news of the big Covid outbreak in Italy, so felt lucky to have gotten a holiday in before it all kicked off.”
Property group clashes with council over Dundrum residential development
The owners of Dundrum Town Centre have clashed with Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown council over demands for more large apartments as they advance fast-track plans for a major residential development in the south Dublin village.
Property group Hammerson and insurer Allianz, which operate the new shopping complex in the area, have been in talks with An Bord Pleanála to build up to 889 apartments on the site of the old Dundrum shopping centre.
Their company, Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership, has told the council it should scrap new requirements for “a minimum of three-plus bedroom units” in large apartment blocks that are included among proposed amendments to its draft county development plan.
In a submission last week to the council, the company said the new guidelines were in conflict with official rules that said there should be no minimum requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms.
According to the company, the justification for the guidelines was based on fast-track strategic housing development permissions in the council area and “evidence” from certain boroughs in London.
“[Dundrum Retail Ltd Partnership] submit that the logic underpinning the policy is flawed and is not a basis for imposing prescriptive unit mix ratios on a countywide basis,” it said.
“The draft development plan needs to be amended to remove the very prescriptive requirement for apartments with three or more bedrooms and to allow applicants to make the case for a particular unit mix based on the particular attributes of local areas where a different mix might be appropriate.”
The company also told the council that proposed amendments to the development plan presented “contradictory or ambiguous objectives” in relation to proposals for a community, cultural and civic centre in the area.
Such objections were included among 106 submissions on the draft plan in a public consultation which closed last week. Numerous other developers and the Irish Home Builders Association lobby group also opposed the measures, some saying they would delay or prevent the delivery of new homes.
Asked about the submissions, the council said the response to any issues raised would be set out in a report by its chief executive to elected members which would be published. “It will be a decision of the elected members to adopt the plan and it is anticipated that this will take place in early March 2022. The plan will then come into effect six weeks later,” the council said.
In its submission, the Irish Home Builders Association said its members were concerned that the introduction of “further onerous standards” would increase the cost of delivering new homes and their price.
“This at a time when construction costs are already under huge inflationary pressure and affordability is a major issues for most home buyers,” said James Benson, director of the association.
“A key concern of the home-building sector in respect of the new plan is a lack of consistency with national planning guidelines/standards, which may be considered to be contrary to recent Government policy which sought to bring a greater extent of standardisation to national planning standards.”
The submission added: “The key concerns relate to the locational restriction and unit mix requirements for [build-to-rent] schemes, other standards for apartment developments which are more onerous/restrictive than the Government’s… guidelines, and the requirement for early delivery of childcare facilities in residential developments, all of which have the potential to impact adversely on the viability and affordability of housing in the county.”
Another builder, Park Developments, said in a submission the draft sought “more onerous policies, objectives and standards” that would have a direct effect on housing supply. “We are already seeing the impact of the chronic shortage in the supply of housing on the affordability of rental accommodation and homeownership.”
Castlethorn Construction said the blanket imposition of three-bedroom requirements “can only serve to militate against development of apartments” in the council area. It said the cost of delivering three-bed apartments was “very significant”, adding that demand was “not evident by reference to market sentiment, estate agents’ advice” and national policy imperatives.
Developer Hines, which has major interests in the Cherrywood strategic development zone, said in its submission that the logic underpinning requirements for more three-bedroom units was flawed.
“While making the case that recent development has been weighted towards one- and two-bed units, it fails to recognise that three-bed semi-detached and detached houses remain the predominant typology within [Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown] and that the [strategic housing development] permissions provide a much-needed mix of housing types within the county to redress this balance within the county.”
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