State has ambitious climate policies but is failing to implement them, Robinson says

Former president tells conference ‘time is of the essence’ to incentivise behavioural change required to address climate crisis

Ireland has ambitious climate policies but is failing to implement them, and should be spending more now to incentivise behavioural change, according to the chair of the Elders global leaders group, Mary Robinson.

Speaking at the DCU Centre for Climate and Society’s annual conference on Tuesday, the former president of Ireland said: “Ireland, to its credit, has good climate policies, but Ireland’s not implementing ... I’m struck by the fact that we’re on track for a 29 per cent reduction [in carbon emissions], rather than a 50 per cent reduction by 2030 is not good.”

She added: “We’re a country that benefited from fossil fuels. We have that responsibility, we should be doing far more, real tangible stuff at every level, in every capacity – at local level, at regional level at national level.”

The Government “should be incentivising more; spending more money cleverly now”, otherwise, the future would be even more grim for farmers and for others, she predicted. “So time is of the essence, the urgency there ... We have a beautiful island. It could be the most sustainable island in the world and everybody would benefit. That’s what I’d love to see.”


The global climate movement, including Fridays for the Future led by young activists, was “bruised” because so much effort has gone in and so little seems to be coming the right way with slow progress on moving to a much better, healthier world, she said.

The Ukraine war had knocked Europe backwards while farmers were suffering greatly especially in Ireland “from exactly what was predicted; much greater precipitation, meaning more rain, more flooding. It’s very sad to hear their stories at the moment”.

“We really have to incentivise heavily to move in the right direction more,” she said, “I sometimes feel we need to spend our children and grandchildren’s money, more now, or our children and grandchildren won’t have the future they want.”

She confirmed that she no longer has a car and travels in Ireland mainly by public transport. She has to fly when travelling abroad because of tight scheduling of meetings.

Mrs Robinson said “philanthropy needs to prioritise climate” as a lot of corporates simply did not get the case for supporting climate actions.

“I think what we need is everyone at every level of responsibility to have that sense of urgency that we are in a climate and nature crisis.

“At the moment we’re losing because we’re not moving fast enough and that, you know, so it’s not just at Government and Oireachtas level. It’s also at local authority level, at city level.”

Globally, a lot of progress was being made on transitioning to a zero-carbon future but again it was not happening fast enough, she said.

“We’re moving, we’re actually moving a bit faster, [but] we’re not moving nearly fast enough for the science – and unfortunately the science is going worryingly the wrong way, as I’m sure many of you will know.”

The business community has a key role in engaging and negotiating a genuine just transition for the world but is being distracted from this, said Glenn Gillard, sustainability market lead with Deloitte Ireland

Sustainability was a few years ago a main priority for CEOs, he added, but “what I see today is business getting preoccupied with geopolitical tension, a challenging economic environment, but also other transformational changes like artificial intelligence. What we’re seeing is our attention being drawn away from the discussion of sustainability and climate.”

There was a need to get these issues back on the table, he added, though he was optimistic “because we are seeing a slow shift but a shift from what was the traditional shareholder value of the world and of business to a stakeholder value view. Thinking about organisations and their impact on not just the bottom line, but on people, their community and on the on wider society”.

One of the key drivers of that is the intergenerational nature of the workplace today and the role that those different voices in an organisation are making, Mr Gillard said. “We are definitely seeing that strength of voice from the younger people within the within our organisations, having a clearer view and holding leadership accountable for the fact that you cannot just look at the bottom line, you need to look wider than that.”

Department of Foreign Affairs climate director Dr Sinead Walsh said annual climate COPS hosted by the UN were not always the best way to get global climate policy done as 200 countries were attempting to secure agreement. It took decades to have reference in the outcome to have references to fossil fuels which was absurd, she added.

But there were ways to make progress outside the negotiation room, Dr Walsh said, as was achieved last year when 83 countries including Ireland agreed to support countries in conflict zones whose plight was being exacerbated by climate change.

Participants in the Children and Young People’s Assembly of Biodiversity also addressed the conference. Niamh (17) said their “contributions cannot be allowed to be merely tokenistic or a long standing cry for change”.

Their voices were integral to the success of Ireland’s future, she added, as engaging and valuing young people “is the only way forward for the sake of our planet and our democracy”.

Young people across the globe deserved recognition and a chance to have their voices heard and to be empowered, she said.

Conor (12) said sitting in on a meeting with the Oireachtas Climate Action committee on how their report should be implemented was something he never imagined. But he had learned that young people could be heard and make a difference – while small actions like cycling “make a difference even if you’re not acknowledged”.

He added: “We are not saying children should be in Government. Obviously, we don’t want a four-year-old president, but they should be listened to. There should be more assemblies like this.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times