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EOIN NEYLON: Green policies could save rural way of life

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With full government formation takes underway, which have thus far been described as cordial, it’s now looking more and more likely that we will see Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens come together to try rebuilding our society and economy in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis.

In the days immediately following the election, such an arrangement was priced as 10/1 to bookmakers. The fact those odds have narrowed to 1/4 shows the scale of the movement in the political landscape in the past three months. With an ambiguous election result, resulting in a hung Dáil, the process of forming a Government from the 33rd Dáil was always going to prove problematic. Nevertheless, it has taken 90 days for parties to launch formal formation talks which could lead to a working majority. A lot of this delay could have been avoided if it wasn’t for individual party leaders having first to bring their membership to the table, let alone each other.

The final hurdle to the beginning of these talks was crossed early last week as the FF and FG leaders issued the Green party with an assurance that they would sign up to a 7% annual average reduction in carbon emissions. The statement issued though did explicitly outline that the measures would not be at the expense of jobs nor would it cause the agriculture sector major disruption. This fall a clear signal to their own members that the Greens would get their main request but not at the expense of their own core base and beliefs. This begs the question; from where can we get to this 7% reduction figure?

Firstly, we need to more away from out reliance on fossils fuels. The outgoing government has already moved in this direction by banning all future oil exploration in Irish waters. All oil and gas exploration requires a licence to do so which is issued by the Government. By stopping the issuing of licences, this effectively putting a policy of “leave it in the ground” in place. The 2016 Fossil Fuel Divestment Act also prevents the Government from directly investing in fossil fuel exploration, meaning that the state cannot tap these resources directly either. It is worth noting that the country faces huge fines if we miss meeting our emissions targets, we are under legal obligation to meet under EU law by 2030. To date, we are a way off meeting those targets so there is a financial incentive for the country to move in this direction too.

The suite of measures that we could investigate include, a ban on sales of internal combustion engine vehicles in favour of entirely electric vehicle for domestic use. This may prove hard and unrealistic in short run regarding commercial and agricultural vehicles. A massive home retrofitting program to improve energy rating of the existing housing stock is a must given how much of our country’s carbon footprint is tied up in home heating. This would have the added benefit of a boost to construction employment. Furthermore, a national campaign to promote a more plant-based diet and a move away from dairy farming would also see a reduction. This would, however, need to be implemented alongside incentives for farmers to turn their land over to forestry and tillage, further moving the country away from dairy farming. A benefit of this may be the ability to change Moneypoint power station into a biomass generation facility, subject to the amount of land that can be given over to biomass production. If we were reliant on the station to keep up current energy output figures, we would need to plant an area the size of Co. Cork to fuel it. That should not be needed though as we increase power supply from other sources. One Clare Councillor, Cillian Murphy, is also looking at the idea of community energy generation. One such example he has championed is a pilot project with the Loop Head Energy Action Partners Agri-Energy network for the delivery of an anaerobic digester and associated bio-gas production across West Clare, as previously reported in the Clare Echo.

One thing that has long annoyed me though is that we are not world leaders in offshore wind energy production. We have huge, largely untapped potential both in wind along with wave power generation, that Ireland has never really invested properly in. As stated in this column previously, investment in wave and wind would create huge levels of employment in areas like Clare and the rest of the west coast. An investment in public transport networks and safe, segregated cycling infrastructure would also reduce car traffic on our roads, particularly in cities where cars idling in traffic add hugely to out carbon emissions. Our neighbours in the UK produced 31% of their national grid needs from solar power on May 9th which is another potential every source we as a country have been very poor in embracing. We have a long way to go to catch up to our European neighbours in terms of renewable energy production.

The about measures collective represent a lot of money for a Government to invest across the country. However, with a need to rebuild the economy in the aftermath of Covid-19, and with borrowing rates at historical lows on the bond market, this is the perfect time to invest in ourselves, our health and the future. The alternative is to hand over the cash in the form of fines which would be unbearable waste. Far from the traditional fearful approach to green policies in rural Ireland, they could well yet represent the saving the rural way of life. There’s opportunity in literally everything.

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