Minister for the Environment, Phil Hogan, has been on something of an environmental crusade of late. Fresh from his sabbatical during the Fiscal Treaty referendum, the Minister recently published Our Sustainable Future – A Framework for Sustainable Development for Ireland and finally ratified the Aarhus Convention. Embarrassingly, Ireland is the last country in Europe to ratify Aarhus and it appears that the Minister is determined to have an unblotted copybook before he heads off to the Rio + 20 Earth Summit later this month. Early indications are that Rio +20 will amount to little, with major differences between developed and developing countries and it will be ‘business as usual’. The Minister is also busily attempting to close the plethora of European Court of Justice judgements against Ireland on our environmental performance before taking over the EU presidency in 2013.

Such is the present universal lack of interest in environmental issues that these important announcements were barely covered in the media. Bizarrely, the Government decided that there would be no official launch (only a photocall) of the strategy and, as reported in the Irish Times, journalists were not even allowed to ask questions of the Minister or the Taoiseach on the subject. This may have something to do with the references in the document to ‘consider the scope and need for wider use of user charging’ (i.e. water charges, property tax) and environmental tax reform (i.e. carbon tax, septic tank charges) – all, of course, extremely politically sensitive issues.

I have previously posted on Ireland’s previous 1997 Sustainable Development strategy which was entirely disregarded throughout the ‘Celtic Tiger’ period. Ireland’s performance in almost every environmental indicator nose-dived dramatically over the past 15 years, particularly greenhouse gas emissions, water quality and fossil fuel dependency. Unfortunately the portents for this current strategy are equally bleak and it is most likely destined to become simply another glossy document adorning the shelves of policy makers.

The strategy does include a wide-range of welcome and well-intended policy goals. However, the sheer breadth of the cross-sectoral environmental, social and economic goals included in the strategy creates an implementation challenge of impossible scope and unmanageable complexity. On a more fundamental level however, the central challenge in implementing this strategy will be of-course the dichotomy between ‘sustainability’ and ‘development’ in modern capitalist societies. This ‘elephant in the room’ is habitually ignored by policy makers regardless of the compelling evidence to the contrary.

According to the strategy economic growth, social cohesion and environmental sustainability must move forward in a mutually supportive manner. This is to be achieved by decoupling (relatively) environmental degradation and resource consumption from economic and social development through a new paradigm of ‘sustainable consumption’. The difficulty is that recent production and consumption patterns have led to a substantial growth in wealth and national income (GDP) in Ireland. Indeed Ireland’s record economic performance between 2000 and 2007 was accompanied by a massive increase in resource consumption – the highest in Europe. The current economic development profiles of all developing economies (e.g. Brazil, China etc) are similarly strongly correlated with a massive increase in resource consumption.

Stacked against the objective of ‘sustainable consumption’ is the conventional response to the current economic recession which is to boost consumption, boost demand, and boost exports. Of course, this will require even greater consumption of resources, regardless of efficiency. The inconvenient truth is that there is a complete absence of evidence that it is possible to boost economic performance (growth) while reducing resource use. In fact, empirical research would strongly suggest that it is not possible. Any efficiency gain associated with the ‘weightless’ knowledge economy is simply achieved by externalising resource consumption to developing countries and nullified by the ‘rebound effect’. In fact, the only proven mechanism to reduce resource consumption, pollution and emissions is economic recession.

Ireland’s Ecological Footprint was, at the latest assessment, the tenth-highest per person footprint in the world. Our unenviable position at the top of the resource consumption league table is to a large extent as a consequence of our oil dependency. Ireland currently imports approximately €6 billion per annum and we are amongst the most oil dependent countries in the world, primarily as a consequence of our spatial development patterns and private car dependency. All recent research, including that of the International Energy Agency and the International Monetary Fund, predicts a near doubling of oil price rises over the next twenty years. Of particular interest in the latter report is the conclusion that:

“..the assumption that technology is independent of the availability of fossil fuels may be inappropriate, so that a lack of availability of oil may have aspects of a negative technology shock. In that case the macroeconomic effects of binding resource constraints could be much larger, more persistent, and they would extend well beyond the oil sector”.

The new Government strategy notes:

“The world is facing into an uncertain future with peak oil, high energy prices, ecosystem degradation and a changing climate all key concerns. A systematic approach to managing this risk will be needed if we are to maintain our future prosperity and way of life.”

It is hard to think of a more fundamental challenge to Irish society and the global economy. The peaking of world oil production presents Ireland with an unprecedented risk management problem. However, there is no sense that the government would consider formulating a risk management strategy.  This typical response has drawn an exacerbated reaction from the Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency, Fatih Birol.  Any strategy which does not at least question the all-pervasive accepted wisdom of the policy imperative for economic growth, or whether economic growth is actually possible in an era of oil price inflation, is simply ‘green washing’ and falls a long way short of what is urgently required.

Gavin Daly