Tuesday 30 September 2008

Financial and Economic Crisis will hurt the Greens

I was listening to Thomas Friedman of the New York Times talking on KRCW's To the Point. Friedman has been arguing for years that the US needs to drastically cut its dependence on oil and to transition to more sustainable technologies and behaviours. "The problem for the US economy" he said "is that it has become a giant money laundering system. We borrow money from the Chinese and give it to Saudi Arabia after running it through our gas tanks".

Friedman sees a world balanced at a delicate juncture. A new and radically different world lies before us. The future must be green. There are, says Friedman, huge opportunities now to spot the potential of new green sustainable technologies. And the US, he thinks, could be and should be leading the way.

Friedman argues that the world will take a new direction economically, like a mini revolution, and the Us needs to be at the front of the pack not lagging behind. If the US doesn't innovate and alter its course, others will. Japan, Europe, and even China, will quickly respond to price signals about energy and will drive hard from new technology. Already, the US is behind. Friedman finds it insane that one of the contenders for the White house holds to the mantra "Drill Baby Drill". He sees this as analogous to advocating more investment in type writing and carbon paper at the point when the PC was just being born.

But Friedman must be right when he remarks that the current financial and economic crisis is now going to kill off, for the time being, a transition to more sustainable technology. Any movement in a new direction will require innovation funded by generous amounts of venture capital and by heavy political sponsorship to alter taxes or set carbon limits so that signals are sent to the market to move to new technologies. In the current climate this kind of manoeuvring is unthinkable. Leaders will be forced to be parsimonious with spending. They will retrench and hold the line out of fear.

Surely when the tax payer is being asked for at least $700bn, it is impossible to start playing with taxes to give incentives to invest in green energy.

And so I thought of our own Green Party who entered government saying they were not a PD style watch dog, they were not powerful enough to dictate major policy, but that they would above all else, focus on moving Ireland on to a more sustainable path in terms of energy use and carbon footprint.

With the economy falling apart however, and public finances in deep trouble, there is now almost no scope for bold initiatives that might encourage investment in green technology. No capacity to reduce tax say on items that are environmentally friendly. No scope to pour funding into exciting new ventures for conservation or energy production. Instead, all we hear is that Ireland's carbon output has been grossly underestimated. Overall then, the Greens are facing a fairly sparse time in terms of what they can hope to achieve.

Some commentators have mooted that there may be bold new carbon plans or insulation incentives in the budget. I honestly doubt if there will be anything of the magnitude required to make a difference. Given the depth of the current economic crisis, it seemly highly likely to drag on for several years. This means that the latitude for generous green projects is reduced to almost Nil. And I feel the Greens will finish their first term in government will precious little to show.


Anonymous said...

Of course there's pressure on all government departments, but the Green ministries are unique, when it comes to the budget, because they have the potential - and the obligation - to coordinate policies that will reduce Ireland's emissions (all be it with Transport and Agriculture having the heavy lifting to do when it comes to actually delivering reductions.)

Though blinkered and sceptical initially, the mandarins in Merrion Street are increasingly aware of the looming bill from Brussels for failure to meets reduction targets and are beginning to take seriously the climate challenge.

We're not yet at the stage where radical measures like shooting cows and banning cars from city streets are being complicated, but we're not far off.

The Carbon Levy, which Lenihan confirmed will be introduced in next year's budget, will be a major step in the right directions.

Anonymous said...

(p.s. that should be "contemplated", not "complicated" in the second last paragraph, and direction not directions in the last par.)