Below is the speech I delivered at the Extended Congress, Lyon, France, 4th February 2024.
Me alongside other panelists Rasmus Nordqvist, Anna Baiomi, Enrico Somaglia,
Sophia Wiegand and Rasmus Wiegand at the Extended Congress in Lyon, France.
So before I start, to set the stage, a little about myself.
I am a mother – a parent concerned for future generations, and for the future of our beautiful planet.
I am a scientist and an environmentalist, and I try hard to practice what I preach!
I am also a politician, and a Minister in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the Irish Government.
But I think of most relevance to my brief here this evening, is that I am a farmer.
My husband Mark and I have an organic beef and sheep farm in Co Offaly in the Midlands of Ireland. And our farm is located in the heart of Ireland’s EU Just Transition territory. And the challenges around Agriculture and Just Transition are very similar.
The Just Transition context is quite simple. Historically, in Ireland we had 10 peat burning power stations plants, the majority of these were in the Midlands region.
Last December, the final peat train made its journey to the last of these plants, marking the end of an era for communities – communities who have had 3 or 4 generations of workers engaged in peat extraction for power generation.
Indeed, there are similar and much larger communities like this all across Europe. But I imagine the same challenges prevail. Some within these communities have seen opportunities, and are embracing them - eager and enthusiastic to better their local areas and prospects.
Others, however have not. They are not benefiting from this new reality - they are hurting, they feel abandoned and let down, and they feel that the green “agenda” has destroyed their futures. And that is our challenge – one clearly highlighted in the Green and Social Deal – that those left behind as we move away from the old, should be first in line to reap the potential of the new.
And that is the challenge that we will consider this evening, especially from the perspective of the role of civil society. And to this esteemed panel - with Civil Society Organisations, Trade Unions and NGOs - we KNOW you matter in Just Transition - but humour me for a moment, as I reflect on WHY you matter.
Governments and the EU can legislate, but they cannot implement these policies on their own. Just this week we have seen dangerous examples of the breakdown of the social contract, with farmers ramping up their protests, setting fires, and attacking our EU Parliament.
Civil Society Organisations have a tremendously important role to play as communicators and mediators; and I’d like to share an example.
In Ireland we have an organisation called Irish Rural Link, and in 2022, during the public consultation phase of Ireland’s Clean Air Strategy, they played an important intermediary role, including meetings with myself and other key Ministers. The impacts of this Clean Air Strategy were greatest in the Midlands area, and in those communities which have for decades been burning peat for home heating.
But the learnings arising from engagement with Irish Rural Link, helped us as policy makers to bridge some of the gaps in understanding between these different perspectives. Like many Civil Society Organisations, like them Irish Rural Link are trusted intermediaries, with an ear to the ground.
The Clean Air Strategy was, and still is, a difficult sell to communities, and I can’t say we have solved it; but we have forward momentum, and hopefully through proactive engagements, such as today, we have the means to come up with some solutions. And I am very interested in hearing from our panel on the subject of fuel poverty later.
More recently, I spoke at a Sustainable Energy seminar on Biomethane. Ireland is well behind the European curve on establishing an Anaerobic Digestion sector, probably 20 years behind, but again even though this type of industry is well established elsewhere, it is fraught with challenges in Ireland, and in bringing communities along with us.
One of the other speakers at that event, was an expert in community engagement, and that soon became the core issue for the entire seminar. We can have all the science and research, policies and business plans in place, but without support from the communities involved, we’re going nowhere.
I think sometimes we are too quick to dismiss community concerns as misinformation, or as fake news. And yes, while it may well be the case, we still need to engage, to find the common ground with the middle ground, to dispel those concerns, and to reassure people that they have been listened to, and their views taken on board.
That expression - “when you’re explaining, you’re losing” - comes to mind, so it’s essential that consultation and engagement begins at the earliest possible opportunity, to prevent resistance and resentment from setting in. Because we all know how difficult it is to repair damaged relationships and broken trust. Just look at the current relationship between the farming sector and the environmental movement. There is much to repair.
And that’s where Civil Society comes in, because it fills that space between people and the state, and that’s why it’s so important we listen to and address the concerns that exist among our populations - be they fossil fuel workers, farmers, commuters or consumers.
We need to work hard to reduce uncertainty, and we need to work hard instill confidence that this is the correct path to take.
Civil Society also matters because the most vital part of our ability to create change, is in our power to unite, and to work collectively for a common good. Of course, in the first place, we must have a shared idea of what we want to unite behind, and what the pace of change should be. But I notice that across Ireland and the EU, that we as communities and societies, are at a point where we simultaneously want to transition, but don’t want to transition, or at least not yet.
I believe this contradiction is a phase, and we will move beyond it – the questions are when, and how equitably?
Within our societies, we have many, including a significant number of young people, telling us we are neither going far enough, nor fast enough. Science tells us the same thing. But we have others, particularly those most impacted economically and socially by climate mitigation, telling us we are going too fast, and too far. Solving this is our single biggest challenge.
Interestingly, some of the solutions to some of our problems are well established. They are just hidden from us. Take the Bioeconomy.
I appreciate it may be a word very familiar to people in this room, but it’s very much an unknown word to most people in our communities. My own Department of Agriculture is currently in the process of allocating €10 million of the EU Just Transition Fund, matched with €10 million of Irish exchequer funding, for Bioeconomy projects in the Midlands, and there is good interest from academia and industry to explore and understand its potential.
But it’s a strange juxtaposition all the same, allocating pots of money for a concept so few are aware of, yet a practice that has been around for as long as civilisation has been composting, using manure as fertiliser, and using natural fibres and animal skins to keep us warm.
But, again, we need to demonstrate and communicate the potential of these ‘new-age’ Bioeconomy projects as part of the Just Transition, to those who are not familiar with the concepts. And, again, that comes back to effective and early engagement with communities, to highlight what we are trying to achieve, how fossil fuels can be displaced by Bioeconomy based alternatives, and how these demonstrators projects, funded through the EU Just Transition Fund, can act as catalysts for further development and job creation in the Midlands.
And from a farming perspective, organic farming is a good example of part of the transition agriculture has to make, and here I can speak both as a Policy Maker and a Farmer.
It may not need much in the way of new technology to advance, but it does need new thinking, and by supporting our farmers to farm without chemical fertilisers and pesticides, by supporting them to farm with fewer inputs, and to work with the nature; we can improve farm incomes, produce higher quality food, with better animal welfare outcomes, improved water quality and biodiversity, and lower GHG emissions.
Of course there are other ways farmers can reduce their impacts on the environment, and still produce food. We hear a lot about regenerative farming, biological agriculture, and agroecology, and if they are the antidotes to the current extractive agriculture model we’ve been following, then bring it on!
All of this comes with a caveat however, because if we are to truly live within our planetary boundaries, we cannot simply replace petro chemical production with Bioeconomy production, and carry on business as normal, with the same consumption models and economic expectations.
So, as referenced in the Green and Social Deal we must reconsider our metric for judging our success.
As a Green Party in Ireland, we have long been critical of the inadequacies of traditional economic measures, such as GDP, in assessing the health of our society, and the progress of our country.
However, as a Party now in Government, we have ensured that Ireland develops a Wellbeing Framework, under which other measures are analysed to evaluate our success as a nation; measures such as mental and physical health, housing, the environment, and safety and security.
This Framework is published annually, and our job, as legislators, is to ensure that these results are used to inform better policy making, and to deliver a better quality of life for our citizens, across all indicators, and not just financial wealth.
I want to conclude, again by saying that the legislators cannot implement the policies on their own. We need help with that, because the social contract needs trusted mediators, and that trust is built on engagement, experience and connection. Civil Society is that bridge.
I am really looking forward to the discussion from our panelists, and thank you to everyone here for your role in that forward momentum I mentioned earlier.
To leave you with one final sagely expression – If you want to go fast, go alone; If you want to go far, go together.
Well, unfortunately we need to go fast and far – so I’m going to pass you over to the panelists now, who I hope will draw the map of the route we should all take.
Thank you very much!