The coming weeks will see unprecedented pressure on the relationship between the Green Party and its Coalition partners about how the State will meet its climate pledges.
Those best attuned to how the Coalition works have always played down the notion that its great faultline was between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, believing the Greens were being wrongly ignored.
True, the two big parties may bitch and moan about one another, but, having made their historic decision to throw their lot in together, both know that they have to make it work if they are to have a case to make to voters next time.
The more substantial political faultline, rather, is between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on one side, and the Greens on the other – not just because of different philosophies, but because the latter’s policies are much more radical.
The project to cut Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 is a mammoth undertaking, and it will not be done painlessly, nor without political cost
Those differences were bridged in the Programme for Government, which set out the ambitious target of cutting emissions of greenhouse gases by 51 per cent by the year 2030.
If the Programme for Government was the agreement to build a bridge between the Greens and the conservatism of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil on climate, the Climate Action Act passed by the Dáil earlier this year was the blueprint for the bridge’s construction. But now, as the Coalition seeks to agree the revised National Development Plan, the budget, the Climate Action plan and the carbon budget, it’s time to put the bricks and the steel in place. And that is proving rather more difficult.
Several sources, on both sides of the arguments about this that are taking place behind closed doors in Government, confirm that deep and substantial divisions exist between the Greens and the other parties in Government.
Put simply, the bit where the ambitions to achieve carbon reductions meet the measures which will be necessary to achieve that is proving ... tricky. More than tricky. It is exposing the differences between the parties in a way that hasn’t really happened since the Coalition began. “This where the rubber hits the road all right,” says one insider.
The project to cut Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 is a mammoth undertaking, and it will not be done painlessly, nor without political cost. To get an idea of the scale of the undertaking, consider this: the global target is to reduce carbon emissions by more than 7 per cent every year, so as to achieve the 51 per cent reduction by 2030 (and “net zero” by 2050). This is what scientists say is likely to be necessary to keep global warning from breaching the potentially catastrophic 2-degree barrier.
Last year, when large parts of the economy were shut down for months on end, the roads empty and industry silent, Ireland’s emissions fell by just 6 per cent. And remember, the requirement – now legally binding on the Government by the laws of the land – is to achieve 7 per cent every single year.
Politics is the art of compromise, and the mechanics of compromise require people and parties to be clear about their priorities. The Greens ruthlessly disciplined themselves in accepting some things they did not like in order to achieve what they believe is important. And nothing is more important for them than the climate action plan. If the Greens do not get what they want – or most of what they want – then there is no point for them in being in Government.
For Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, however, the forthcoming Climate Action Plan is part of the regular process – like the budget, say – of give-and-take, of compromise, of accepting that if you get most of what you want, that is a good day in Government. That’s the fundamental difference of approach between the two sides.
It would not be true to say that relations between the parties have broken down. Ministers and officials continue to seek solutions and compromises that can achieve emissions targets. To that extent, there remains a common goal. But solutions are not immediately apparent.
“Look, it’s going to be really hard to implement the Programme for Government,” says one person involved. “But it is the Programme for Government.”
“When I speak to the other parties, nobody is disputing the 51 per cent target,” says one person from the Green side of things. “But yes, it wouldn’t be true to say there are no divisions. There have been arguments.”
Emissions cuts will hit three sectors hardest: transport, renewables and agriculture. In transport, it will necessitate a move away from petrol and diesel cars and towards electric cars, public transport, cycling and walking. It also requires that the Government spend less on roads and more on climate-friendly – or at least friendlier – transport. The Programme for Government recognises this, with a commitment to split investment funding 2:1 in favour of public transport over roads.
But while Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are signed up to this overarching goal, their TDs remain extremely committed to individual road projects. They will be watching the revised National Development Plan, to be launched on Monday, to make sure their projects have not slipped down or off the list of priorities.
But it is agriculture, and the vexed question of emissions from the national dairy herd, that is proving the most difficult. There has been, insiders say, considerable friction between the Minister for Energy and Green leader Eamon Ryan and the Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue. Agriculture, says a Green source, is "the challenge of challenges".
“But I think we are slowly turning the dial,” the source adds.
But another source, from a different perspective, doesn’t share the optimism. “Charlie says ‘We won’t be cutting the herd.’ But you cannot achieve this without significant cuts to the herd,” the source says. He envisages effective quotas – and diminishing quotas – for livestock. Farmers, for their part, are unlikely to accept that. And neither will many Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael TDs.
Nothing is finalised yet. The carbon budget, worked out by the Government's Climate Change Advisory Council, is due at the end of this month, in parallel with the Government's Climate Action Plan. Plans are being developed by nine working groups. They will first develop "core measures" which will achieve most – but not all – of the 51 per cent target and will take shape as binding emissions ceilings for the various sectors. That is when the measures will become clear. And when the private wrangling currently taking place behind closed doors moves into the public gaze, it will put pressure on the Coalition like never before.