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Stephen Collins: Social partnership may be key to creating climate consensus

Ambitious and worthy carbon targets will not be met without national agreement

The Coalition has signed up enthusiastically to the international agreement on carbon emissions and produced an ambitious climate action plan of its own. But it has failed to provide the critical detail about how it aims to achieve its targets or how it proposes to generate the national consensus that will be required to achieve them.

The danger about the current worthy, but woolly, aspirations is that they have the capacity to generate a political storm that could destroy the Government when it comes to implementation or, alternatively, that political opposition could result in the targets never being met.

The Coalition is currently basking in the apparent widespread approval that greeted its climate action plan but the problem is that public approval for reducing carbon emissions does not necessarily translate into support for the hard practical measures required to achieve the targets.

Opposition forces will latch on to public disquiet and make it very difficult to implement measures to reduce carbon emissions

The Government has done the easy part by passing legislation requiring a cut in carbon emissions by 7 per cent a year, leading to a reduction of 51 per cent by 2030. It followed that up with the detailed list of targets in the climate action plan. The hard part has still to come.


A recent Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll was a warning to the Government that getting public backing for the plan to reduce carbon emissions is going to be a mammoth task. It showed there was a high degree of public resistance to some of the key measures that will have to be introduced in the coming years, particularly those involving extra costs for families and individuals.

For instance, 82 per cent of those polled expressed opposition to higher taxes on fuel and energy while 72 per cent opposed increasing the price of cars that run on petrol or diesel. Yet both of these measures will have to be part of the solution. The poll also showed, unsurprisingly, that 81 per cent of voters are not prepared to run the risk of electricity blackouts which are a real possibility if all carbon-based sources of electricity generation are banned. When it comes to agriculture, the poll showed there is widespread resistance to reducing the size of the national herd – and this went far beyond the farming community or people living in rural Ireland.

The obvious political danger for the Coalition is that a variety of opposition forces will latch on to the public disquiet and make it very difficult to implement any of the measures necessary to reduce carbon emissions. Sinn Féin and the Trotskyite factions have already expressed vocal opposition to carbon taxes and this opposition will inevitably get louder in the years ahead. A range of Independent TDs at the other end of the political spectrum can be expected to join in. The experience of the yellow vest movement in France, which almost derailed Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, shows just how potent such a protest movement can be with its ability to attract support across the political spectrum.

The Coalition has signalled that it intends to engage in consultation and public awareness campaigns to persuade people of the necessity for action and also to sell a variety of grants and inducements to get carbon emissions down. One option that has been mooted is the creation of a public debating forum, along the lines of the Forum on Europe which was established after the electorate voted to reject the Lisbon Treaty in 2001. It is doubtful if that will be nearly enough to get the public to engage with the arguments in a detailed fashion.

Haughey established a social partnership arrangement in which unions, employers, farmers and government managed to reach a consensus on what needed to be done

Back in 2018 a Citizens’ Assembly considered the issue of climate change and produced massive majorities for a whole range of measures to deal with the issue. One of the findings was that 80 per cent of the assembly members said they would be willing to pay higher taxes on carbon intensive activities. The Irish Times poll indicates that the assembly findings are a bit removed from the mood on the ground.

If the Government is looking for a model of how to generate a truly national consensus to deal with a seemingly intractable problem, a better option than a forum would be the social partnership arrangement that was devised in 1987 to try and drag the country out of a decade-long recession.

The 1980s were plagued by an apparently intractable crisis in the public finances that led to ever-higher taxes on work and prompted a return to serious emigration. Party politics proved a hindrance rather than a help as Charles Haughey and Fianna Fáil fought tooth and nail against the efforts of Garret FitzGerald’s government to right the ship.

However, when Haughey assumed power in 1987 as leader of a minority government he adopted his opponent’s policies virtually unchanged. But crucially he managed to get the social consensus for tough measures that had eluded FitzGerald. He did this by establishing a social partnership arrangement in which unions, employers, farmers and government managed to reach a consensus on what needed to be done.

That consensus provided the basis for the economic recovery that became the Celtic Tiger. Something similar involving all of the vested interests would be the best bet to get a consensus on climate change.