Don’t wait for politicians to lead the climate revolution

This article appeared in the Irish Times on the 9th of January 2024 as

This will be another critical year for climate action. Everything we do as government, businesses and householders must accelerate the end of the fossil fuel era. We need paradigm shifts across the entire economy to favour new business models that are sustainable across their entire supply chains. Energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies must replace polluting sources of energy, and a new political and economic culture is required to rebalance the power of corporations and profit so that they respect planetary boundaries and ecological limits.

The scale of change required is immense. It is nothing short of revolutionary. However, this revolution will happen, most likely, in boardrooms, on the streets, in communities, in civil society organisations and, to a certain extent, in our hearts and minds. Frankly it is unlikely to be led by the majority of political parties, though a strong climate movement could forge a political consensus around key demands. This revolution will be targeting not the owners of the means of production, but the productive forces themselves with a view to retiring them (in the case of fossil fuels), or repurposing and reshaping them in an economic framework that stays within planetary and social boundaries.

Regulatory interventions will be critical to ensuring that renewables actually displace fossil fuels instead of adding to existing energy demand. What we do as consumers is obviously important but it pales into insignificance beside the energy and resource use of large industries. For instance, a couple of hundred large energy users are responsible for 22 per cent of national energy demand, and data centres are now using 18 per cent of Ireland’s electricity. These large energy users are wildly off target to stay within the emissions ceilings set by the government for 2030 and no one seems to have a plan to do anything about that.

Aside from the weak and ineffective policies directed at industry, climate policies often target the end users, who feel the brunt of bans, taxes and subsidies as an inconvenience and extra cost. In the absence of clear communication and strong political leadership, climate policies will be weaponised by anti-climate action forces that stress the intrusive and costly nature of change instead of the environmental and cost benefit.

Many EU member states have already introduced bans on the installation of new gas and oil boilers in new homes. This led to public outrage in Germany, though much of the reaction was spearheaded by right-wing anti-climate groups. Nonetheless, the Irish Government should not underestimate the challenge of getting private house owners to install 680,000 heat pumps by 2030 at considerable cost, grants notwithstanding. Some expert bodies in the UK have recommended an upfront government subsidy to make heat pumps cost-competitive with alternatives as a way to get around the split incentives and upfront cost barriers.

In 2023, the EU finalised most of the directives under the EU Green Deal and its “Fit455″ package. New obligations from January 2024 will require companies to report transparently on their sustainability and climate impacts as well as end the practice of “greenwashing”. These regulations are important because they are legally binding and they will put manners on companies, requiring them to report transparently on their sustainability impact. Aside from the reporting obligations, they are also likely to bring about subtle changes in business culture.

But as long as these efforts to rein in carbon are mere tick-box exercises for companies, they will fail to engage the public and generate real change. While regulatory change must come from the top, communities can and must play a leading role in the energy transition through the establishment of, for example, campaign groups, community renewable energy projects, community gardens, sustainable energy communities and mobilising support for an end to fossil fuels. Employees are also playing a vital role in pushing companies to take action. Finally, only voters can hold their public elected representatives properly to account when targets are missed and climate measures are derailed to suit vested interests. They will get plenty of opportunities to do just that in 2024.

Litigation, petitions, strong alliances across civil society and local campaigns will seek to influence the next swathe of local, national and European Parliament elections to take place in 2024 and ensure that climate action is both fast and fair. According to writer Emily N Johnson, anything we do this year or next is worth 10 of the same thing 10 years from now. Nothing is more urgent than holding the world well back from any of the ecological tipping points that we haven’t yet crossed, she says. “That makes us, however unintuitively, the most powerful people who have ever lived.”

Sadhbh O’ Neill is the senior climate adviser to Friends of the Earth Ireland

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