We Subsidise Climate Change, and It's Not Funny

Andy Storey

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).


Ireland is falling behind in its commitments to combat climate change.

We are supposed to have cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020 (relative to 2005) but the Environmental Protection Agency reckons we will come in with a cut of just 6 percent to 11 percent.

It may be even worse than that – last year the rest of the EU cut emissions but Ireland increased them by 5.3 percent. The great bulk of that increase came from the activities of the coal-burning power plant at Moneypoint, County Clare.

Even more environmentally damaging is the burning of peat for power generation, which happens in Offaly and Longford.

Apart from the ecological implications, this is economically ridiculous, because energy users pay a surcharge to subsidise peat burning. That surcharge amounts to €180 million per annum. Bord na Mona does not plan to phase out peat usage for energy purposes until 2030.

David Murphy of RTÉ quotes IMF research which suggests that, on average, each Irish person subsidises fossil fuels as a whole to the tune of €230 every year. “Where,” asks Murphy, “is the sense in subsidising something that is inefficient and causing pollution?”

But the subsidy problem does not stop there.

Subsidies, in this case from the EU, that average €400 per hectare, are the only thing keeping Irish beef production profitable. The beef sector contributes to greenhouse gas emissions but neither it, nor other agricultural sectors, are charged for these emissions. If they were, they would be even more loss-making.

By contrast, Professor Alan Matthews of Trinity College points out that an alternative to beef production – forestry – could help reduce emissions but is not subsidised, and, therefore, finds it hard to compete with beef.

Remarkably, Ireland has the lowest percentage of forest cover in Europe. The Irish figure is 11 percent, whereas the European average is over 30 percent.

From the point of view of an individual farmer, or even from the short-term point of view of Ireland as a whole, it may make sense to take the EU subsidies and make money from beef. But the long-term wisdom is questionable.

Local and global sustainability ultimately demands that Ireland make the switch to renewable sources of energy. But, again, the target here – to generate 20 percent of all energy from renewables by 2020 – is unlikely to be met.

To help meet it, the number of homes and businesses using renewable technologies for heating needs to increase seven-fold, including a “rooftop revolution” in solar power usage.

The development of renewable energy is, in some cases, being impeded by local opposition to wind turbines. Locals are often concerned by the proximity of turbines to houses and a claimed lack of community consultation on the part of the companies concerned.

But community ownership of, rather than opposition to, wind farms is possible, as the example of Templederry in County Tipperary demonstrates. Owned by local people, the farm is generating electricity and selling it to the national grid on a scale sufficient to meet the power needs of the nearby town of Nenagh. Some of the dividends are funnelled back into community projects.

Contrast this model with the Corrib Gas project in County Mayo, where a local community had a corporate giant, led by Shell, impose a refinery, a pipeline and enormous disruption upon them, with the support of the state. All this to deepen dependence on fossil fuels and for limited economic return to the Irish state or its citizens. (The government also refuses to rule out ‘fracking’ for natural gas taking place in Ireland – an environmentally damaging process that would further increase emissions.)

Contrast the Templederry model also with the activities of the Irish Strategic Investment Fund (ISIF), funded by people living in Ireland, and investing in fossil fuel companies overseas. The companies include: Peabody Energy, a US coal company found to have misled regulators about its climate-change impact; Transcanada, seeking to construct the Keystone oil pipeline from Canada to Texas; and RWE AG of Germany, opening up new coal-powered generation stations in Europe.

The development agency Trocaire estimates that €72 million of Irish public money went towards the purchase of fossil-fuel-related stocks in 2014 via the ISIF.

Ireland last produced a climate action plan nine years ago.

Friends of the Earth Ireland director Oisin Coughlan has commented that “The real joke is that Ireland isn’t planning to have a plan on how to meet our 2020 emissions targets until after we miss them”.

Unfortunately, the joke is far from funny anymore.

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Andy Storey: Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

Reader responses

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d
at 27 April 2016 at 11:25

It quite interesting watching the Irish government deliberately ignoring the entire problem, I do genuinely wonder if they understand it. Where the tories in Britain probably get it, they don’t care. I genuinely look at Simon Coveny and Alan Kelly and think that they are too stupid for the posts they hold. Single minded, short termists.

John Flynn
at 27 April 2016 at 18:25

You say nothing about the subsidies given to renewable energy sources, which are a lot more inefficient and unreliable than fossil fuels.

Did you know that Western governments gave massive subsidies to wind and solar in the 1970s, thinking that this would generate cheap, plentiful, reliable energy? What has happened since? It has been shown that wind and solar are a complete waste of time and money because they are intermittent and unreliable. And still, the Greens will not move on from their obsession with ‘clean’ energy. Moreover, the belief that wind and solar are ‘clean’ is a delusion: the rare-earth minerals that are needed to construct wind farms and solar panels are very difficult to extract and cause terrible pollution and destruction where they are mined in China: [http://www.theguardian.com/](http…

I’d actually be in favour of cutting subsidies for Bórd na Móna and letting the market decide whether Irish peat is competitive in the international market. At least peat is a reliable and plentiful energy source that’s relatively cheap because it’s easily extracted and processed. Solar and wind, on the other hand, require massive government subsidies and still cannot provide reliable cheap energy.

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