Make no little plans, once wrote American modernist architect and planner Daniel Burnham, as “they have no magic to stir men’s blood. Twas ever thus. National planning has always been the political terrain of narrating a grand hegemonic fantasy of an ideology that is never clearly expressed. With the publication of ‘Project Ireland 2040’, jointly comprising the National Planning Framework (NPF) and the National Development Plan (NDP), Ireland’s recrudescence as a neoliberal vassal state is reaching towards its apotheosis. No longer a ‘society’, we are now a ‘project’ and there is no doubt as to what the project is about – growth! In fact, a stupendous 1.1 million additional people, 660,000 new jobs and 500,000 additional homes in the next twenty-two years.

It is perhaps testament to how normalised growthism has become in colonising the national consciousness that these quixotic projections were near-universally greeted as a deterministic fait accompli. Their provenance, or desirability, has caused not even a ripple of debate or discussion amongst the national commenteriat, planners or academics. On the contrary, with remarkable consensus they have been largely hubristically hailed as a self-congratulatory and entirely logical consequence of Ireland’s post-recession economic renaissance and prospects, and even, by business lobby groups, as far too conservative.

It is true, of course, that, if the past was a reliable guide to future events, demographic change actually exceeded the growth scenario selected in the NPF’s predecessor, the National Spatial Strategy, rising by 844,662 between 2002 and 2016. This primarily occurred during the rapid pell-mell expansion of the Celtic Tiger era and driven chiefly by natural increase.  This time, according to the ESRI population and economic projections which underpin the NPF, population growth will be principally propelled by sustained in-migration as a consequence of “a relatively benign scenario which would see Irish GDP grow by 3 per cent or more each year until 2040.” (p.5). In other words, the NPF projections are fundamentally tied to the immigration patterns that would arise from this very optimistic economic trajectory, which, it is accepted, exceeds that anticipated for most international economies.

This magical growth rate of 3 per cent has become something of a fetishised article of faith amongst economists in recent years and fits with the conventional wisdom that it is the minimum acceptable level for ‘sustainable’ economic growth. In fact, the current mid-range ESRI econometric model runs only to 2030, so the last ten years in the projection horizon were simply linearly extrapolated forward to 2040. It is worth mentioning that a compound growth rate of 3 per cent per annum to 2040 would see an approximate cumulative doubling of total Irish GDP over this period.

Despite repeated caveats in the ESRI report which heavily emphasises that “the projections should not be taken as a forecast, but as a scenario that might arise given a set of assumptions and unchanged modelling parameters” and “subject to significant uncertainties” (p.15), these population ‘projections’ have now been unproblematically transcribed into ‘targets’ for an additional 1.1 million people (25% greater that the ESRI baseline) which the NPF, at a minimum, shall aim to achieve. A number of alternative sub-national ‘macro-spatial’ options were evaluated in order to allocate the regional distribution of this growth, albeit the headline national population target was considered a non-negotiable point of departure i.e. consideration of alternatives was permissible so long as they remained fully circumscribed within the clearly defined parameters of what was open for discussion. Notably, in a separate study, quoted extensively in the analysis underpinning the NPF, three hypothetical population scenarios were examined, whereby the difference between the ‘Low’ and ‘High’ scenario was over 800,000 by 2030. Regardless, and without much justification, the NPF discounted such options and selected a high growth scenario, apparently on account of [t]he lack of fully worked alternative scenarios at the national level that might encompass higher and lower growth than the baseline” (p.4).

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 12.23.04Alternative Population Projections in Wren et al. (2017)

The inadmissibility of genuine alternatives and the pensée unique of a ‘growth first’ approach to spatial development has, of course, long been recognised as a core feature of planning. In this view, ‘Project Ireland 2040’ is simply the latest attempt of an unquenchable political desire to capture and reorientate planning, and its associated geoinstitutional architecture, to provide for a new ‘spatial fix’ of collective consumption and to re-establish the self-fulfilling conditions for sustained capital accumulation. In order to displace political tensions, the resurgence of the inveterate growth agenda has now being wrapped in the soothing banner of a renewed national imaginary of harmonious balanced growth and parity, despite the sustained evidence (even, most recently, from the World Bank) that acute socio-spatial disparities are increasing globally, and will continue to increase, despite all territorial policies to the contrary.

The inherent contradiction of this ideological commitment is laid bare in the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Statement accompanying the NPF, belatedly published over a month after its launch. Climate Change is touted as one of the central pillars of ‘Project Ireland 2040’ with an aggregate reduction in emissions of at least 80% targeted by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels) in line with binding international obligations. Due to its exalted status, agriculture has been effectively exempted, with all the burden of reduction efforts now to come from the electricity generation, built environment and transport (the so called ‘EGBET’ sectors). Greenhouse gas emissions in these sectors is currently running at 31.8 Mt CO2eq (c. 6.6 t CO2eq per capita) and, if population targets were to be achieved, by 2040 emissions would need to decrease to 11.8 Mt CO2eq i.e. a wholly implausible 2 t CO2eq per capita. By 2050, per capita emissions in the EGBET sectors would need to be further reduced to less than 1 t CO2eq per capita, assuming there is no further population growth targeted beyond 2040 (For reference, this is the approximate emissions per capita of most ‘developing’ countries). To date only economic recession and mass emigration (c.2008 – 2013) have been proven to be effective in achieving the scale of emissions reductions required to meet our 2050 trajectory.

This abstraction from reality is further underscored by the very latest EPA projections, published last week, which show that, following a brief downward interregnum during the recession, Ireland’s emissions have rebounded lockstep with the economic growth and, at best, an abject 1% reduction of emissions will be achieved by 2020 compared to a target of 20%. As it turns out, economic growth and emissions reductions are, as long predicted, inimical goals and, despite the mantra of ecological modernisation and ‘sustainable growth’, economic growth does not result in absolute higher returns to resource efficiency (See Jackson (2009) for a useful exposition on this). The EPA also projects that emissions will continue to grow in tandem with a growing economy and, with all existing and currently planned measures, a further meagre decrease of emissions of 1% is projected by 2030 compared to a target of 30%.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 21.35.15

Latest EPA Projections for the EGBET Sectors (2018)

It should be noted that the current EPA projections are based on a future population in 2035 of 5.2 million, 650,000 less than the NPF 2040 targets, and do not take into account any of the policy measures included in ‘Project Ireland 2040’. However, for Ireland to achieve its 2050 emissions reduction target alongside 2040 growth targets, only the mobilisation of revolutionary policies and investment measures together with a massive technological shift on an historically unprecedented scale and scope would suffice, so as to deliver a decoupling of carbon intensity to outrun scale. Notwithstanding its superficial commitment to progressive climate measures, ‘Project Ireland 2040’ is certainly not that, and with its duplicitous promise of new business-as-usual fossil fuel dependent motorways, airport expansion, agricultural productivism and exponential economic and population growth, does not provide us, in any way, a pathway out of this dilemma.

It is often said that what is ecologically necessary is not politically feasible, which raises the spectre that our (un)sustainability conundrum is one of those problems that is simply not solvable. The subterfuge of power, politics and economism generally trump evidence-based analysis and long-term collective interest, resulting in cognitive lock-in and an aggressive shutdown of alternative perspectives. If we are to have any possibility of meeting the biophysical realities of the 21st Century planetary climate crisis, what is desperately needed is a new planning pedagogy and practice that decolonises the future, repoliticies the realm of possibilities and negates the governing fundaments of growth-orientated planning. Of-course, I realise this call to arms is haplessly naïve against the backdrop of planning profession and society that angelizes the imperative of growth as an inviolable normative goal – but from conformity to complicity is but a short step.

Gavin Daly