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Recent record of the Irish construction industry is one long cowboy movie – The Irish Times


We don’t have an Irish space programme. But somebody needs to put a biofueled rocket under the State. Otherwise, all the arguments about how to reduce greenhouse emissions are pointless.

The climate plan now agreed by the Government is the biggest social and economic revolution conceived in Ireland since 1958. In some respects, it is even more demanding than the project of modernisation launched in that year by T.K. Whitaker and Seán Lemass.

What makes it so is time. The Whitaker/Lemass programme for economic development was gradual and open-ended. Indeed, in order to boost national confidence, Whitaker deliberately set targets for economic growth lower than those he expected to achieve.

We don’t have that luxury now. We’ve wasted all the time we had, and more. We spent far too long setting inadequate targets — and missing them.

The abysmal record of previous governments led by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael has left the State with a formidable imperative. It’s not just that we must halve the amount of emissions in just eight years. It’s that we have to do so with a rapidly expanding population.

Over those eight years between now and 2030, we will almost certainly add another half a million people — people who need housing, food, transport, jobs and energy.

The natural trend for our carbon emissions is, therefore, upwards. Cutting them by 51 per cent, as the State is now obliged to do by law, is an immense task.

And let’s not kid ourselves. As things stand, we will fail ignominiously. Our existing culture of governance is not up to the job.

It is somewhat ominous that the Green Party has had to do all the heavy political lifting on what ought to be a shared national undertaking. Ironically, one of the reasons many in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are sanguine about the radicalism of the climate plan is that they see it in the grand tradition of lip service, the equivalent today of what the revival of Irish was a century ago.

They support it because they think it’s not going to happen. This is not a stupid assumption.

Consider three of the most obvious ways of reducing emissions: planting more trees, developing Ireland’s large potential for offshore wind farming and retrofitting our homes.

For as long as I’ve been in journalism, the reforesting of Ireland has been a goal, an aspiration, an accepted necessity. And, in fairness, real progress was made.

The proportion of Irish land that is forested more than doubled between 1975 and 2006. But it has grown very slowly since then, from 10.1 per cent to 11.6 per cent.

Policy is clearly failing — the area of new forest planted by farmers has declined every year since 2010. In 2007, 6,947 hectares of Irish land were converted to forest. Last year, the figure was just 2,016 hectares.

According to a letter to The Irish Times this week from Brendan Fitzsimons of the Tree Council of Ireland “the entire planting programme has collapsed” due in part to the difficulty in obtaining planning permission.

But this planning issue has been discussed, over and over, for four years now. If we can’t even create a system that allows people to plant trees, what chance do we have of solving more difficult climate-related problems?

Meanwhile, Ireland has the richest resource for offshore wind energy in the entire European Union. When did we last build an offshore wind farm? Answer: 2004.

Eighteen years ago, Ireland was at the forefront of this technology. The Arklow Bank that went into operation back then was not just one of the largest such developments in Europe. It also had the world’s first three megawatt wind turbine.

And since then? Nothing. Not a single offshore wind farm has been developed in Irish waters. We were too busy selling bits of onshore property to each other during the Celtic Tiger, and then too depressed by the great crash, to sustain any interest in this exciting future.

As well as having just one offshore wind farm, we have, on the island, just one port with the facilities necessary to support the development of a serious industry. And that port — Belfast Harbour — is not in the State.

Nor have we nurtured the necessary skills. Ireland is training fewer than 20 turbine technicians every year — not to mention the whole range of expertise, from marine biologists to hydrogen engineers that we need if this potential is to be realised.

In relation to the retrofitting of homes, the target is to upgrade radically the energy efficiency of half a million homes by 2030. There’s just one problem: the recent record of the Irish construction industry is one long cowboy movie.

We know, from the Working Group report published last week, that between 50 and 80 per cent of all apartments and duplexes constructed in Ireland between 1991 and 2013 had serious defects. We also know that no one is responsible for any of this, that those who carried out this shoddy work got away scot free and that many of them are presumably still working in the industry.

Thus, on the one hand, we have a vast project that requires homeowners to hand their houses and apartments over to builders who will turn them inside out. On the other, we have a building industry with a shocking record and no accountability.

These two things do not go together.

None of this is to suggest that the emissions targets can’t be met. But it is to underline the obvious: the systems of governance that have created these problems are utterly incapable of solving them — let alone of turbocharging change.

Some optimists will, of course, suggest that everything will be okay once the old shower are thrown out and Mary Lou McDonald becomes Taoiseach. Yet, on climate change, Sinn Féin is the old shower. It is more evasive than the Scarlet Pimpernel.

To carry through this revolution, all parties have to start by accepting that we have lots of targets but, at the level of governance, precious few archers.

Alongside the climate plan, there has to be a plan for creating, very quickly, a system that enforces new demands on both the public and the private sectors.

The public sector has to be able to respond quickly and efficiently to the needs of new industries. It has to get out of silos and bring together infrastructure, education and skills, social justice, taxation, environmental protection and planning. It has to find a way to fast track developments without making speed an excuse for cutting corners.

The private sector, meanwhile, has to be transparent and accountable. Vast amounts of public money will go into these projects.

None of it should go to companies whose ownership is not completely transparent. Shoddiness must be detected and punished immediately, not 10 years down the line when we can safely conclude that no one is to blame.

This must be part two of the climate plan — setting out the revolution in governance without which decarbonisation will be another grandiose failure.

The good news, though, is that if the State does rise to this challenge, it will be because it has finally transformed itself into one that can meet the needs of a 21st century society. A State that is up to this job would also, in so many other ways, be fit for purpose.

Read more from Fintan O’Toole, here.

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