Category Archives: Political

Citizens can create a coherent demand for political reform

- This article first appeared in the Irish Times on Monday, 29 December 2014 under the headline “Now is the time to join the People’s Conversation

In the 2011 general election all parties promised that politics had to change. Recognising, implicitly or explicitly, that our systems of governance had played a part in bringing about the economic crisis, most parties proposed major programmes of political reform. For example, every major party’s manifesto included proposals for greater involvement of citizens in decision-making.

The Constitutional Convention has been a very successful initiative in this respect, and the Government can point to other achievements such as a greater role for Oireachtas committees and an extension of the powers of the Ombudsman. Public participation networks hold out some hope for meaningful citizen engagement at local level.

In order to maintain the momentum for reform up to the next election and beyond we need to first ask ourselves what type of society we hope a reformed politics will be better able to shape.

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My 2013 in review

Looking back on 2013 I realise that, professionally, it has been one of my most interesting and diverse years yet: two major Climate Gathering events, half a dozen new clients for my public policy consultancy, lots of writing and even a few speaking engagements. Policy topics covered include climate, water, waste and resource efficiency, as well as technology, copyright, privacy, taxation, citizenship and government. Certainly worthy of a short blog post. Continue reading

Corporate taxation – ensuring a system fair to all

Green European Foundation, with the support of Green Foundation Ireland, organised a half-day seminar in Dublin on the topic of corporate tax policy on November 13th. A range of speakers from Ireland and elsewhere addressed the technical and political aspects of this complex topic, with some common ground identified but also with some political division on the steps to be taken. I attended as rapporteur and my report is available here (PDF).

The speakers were Dr Sheila Killian (University of Limerick), Dr Rodrigo Fernandez (SOMO), Prof Jim Stewart, Damien English TD (Fine Gael), Michael McGrath TD (Fianna Fáil) and Eamon Ryan (Green Party). The seminar was chaired by John Bowman.

Get Smart, Stupid! Digital Technology, Climate Change, and the Missing Human Element

The Dublin Climate Gathering this month considered the intersection between digital technology and the climate change challenge with the aim of fleshing out “Plan C”: a vision for a clean, digital, low-carbon economy. The concept is based on the understanding that if you want to stop people going from point A to an unsustainable point B, it is necessary to show them a better alterative C. Although nobody can yet be certain of what a future low-carbon society will look like, is generally accepted that digital technology will be a key enabler in any scenario other than large-scale de-growth. Furthermore, given the central role digital technology has come to play in western lifestyles, any appealing vision of a low carbon future must incorporate the conveniences and quality-of-life improvements people have come to expect from digital innovation.

The role of information and communications technology (ICT) in facilitating transition to a low-carbon society is well understood in European policy and has been promoted in various ways over the years. In a 2009 communication the European Commission set out its vision for “mobilising Information and Communication Technologies to facilitate the transition to an energy-efficient, low-carbon economy”. In it the Commission sets out a number of contributions ICT can make to transition, including:

  • use of digital technology to manage energy in major energy-using sectors such as buildings and transport;
  • enabling business models and lifestyles that use less energy and other material resources; and
  • providing the information businesses and consumers need to help them make better decisions on energy use.

The strategy for harnessing these benefits has been moved forward through various avenues, including the Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan, the Smart Grids Taskforce, the Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) Directive and Action Plan, and more recently a new communication on Energy Technologies and Innovation. Many of the recent developments are well outlined in this IIEA blog post by Paddy Buckenham on EU policy on ICT and energy/climate.

Smart cities

Urbanisation is one of the major global trends – by 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in cities, the same level of urbanisation as seen in Europe today. Currently cities account for over 70% of GHG emissions and 60-80% of global energy consumption. If ICT is to help us reduce emissions then cities must be a key focus of the necessary innovation. The “smart city” concept envisages urban areas where digital technology drives efficiency in transport, buildings and energy by ubiquitous monitoring, analysis and integration.

Unsurprisingly, the key drivers of the concept have been the vendors of the enabling technologies, including IBM, Intel and Oracle. However European policy makers are increasingly engaged. In 2011 the EU launched its Smart Cities and Communities Initiative, with a budget of €81 million for demonstration projects in the transport and energy sectors. From 2013 this budget has been increased significantly to €365 million and initiative broadened to include the ICT sector.

Smart cities are a key intersection of digital innovation and public policy, as the public sector is of necessity a key partner. However much of the running to date has been made by the technology vendors, and it is a condition of the EU Smart Cities and Communities programme that consortia bidding for funding must be industry-led. The mismatch in scale and technical know-how between technology vendors and municipal authorities, let alone local communities, makes the question of who should drive smart city projects problematic. In particular it raises the question of who is deciding what outcomes are desirable from the roll-out of smart city technology.

Speaking at the IIEA last year, the British Internet technologist and analyst Ben Hammersley addressed this point:

At present, ‘Smart Cities’ are being built on the foundation of the cultural values of the vendors that are selling the technology to collate the data around things that they think people should be optimizing […] However, people might not want to optimize their route to work on the basis of measures such as time, they might want to take the most aesthetically pleasing route.

This problem is acknowledged within the industry itself. At another IIEA event this year, Accenture’s global lead for Intelligent Cities Strategy, Simon Giles noted that “the discourse on smart cities has been created and dominated by technology vendors and integrators”. He identified lack of engagement with communities and urbanists as a barrier to bringing the smart cities concept to scale, creating the prospect of “death by pilot”.

Steve Jobs famously didn’t believe in asking people want they want before developing a product. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. European policy on smart cities and ICT generally might be said to be following Jobs’s approach: people will see the benefits of smart cities, smart grids and smart meters once they are in place. The focus is on innovators and policy makers working together to roll out demonstration projects (“lighthouses”).

There is validity to this approach: practical examples of smart technology in action are needed to fully communicate their benefits. However a smart city is not a product you can put in somebody’s hand to take or leave. It implies changes in how citizens interact with their urban and home environments, which at a minimum requires meaningful prior consultation. More fundamentally, however, it should be built on a foundation of shared values between citizens and municipal authorities, facilitated but not dictated by technology providers. The desired outcomes of smart city projects must be set out in human terms, incorporating not just energy efficiency but other needs of citizens such as increased public safety, more leisure time, usable public space. Similarly, the trade-offs including potential loss of privacy must be understood and agreed.

As Simon Giles put it:

I think we lack a narrative. We really don’t understand what it is and we can’t articulate what the value proposition is and until we understand that this is never going to go above pilot and into scale.

In other words, the problem is essentially that technology vendors and to some extent municipal authorities understand what it’s possible to do but they are less clear on why you would want to do it in the first place. If the smart city concept is to reach the scale necessary to have any meaningful impact on emissions we must learn how to integrate it from the outset with the basic needs and desires of urban citizens: to introduce the missing human element. Demonstration projects are certainly needed, but we also need a shared understanding of what smart cities are intended to achieve, how they will be used by citizens, and what the benefits will be in human terms.

Of course this is easier said than done. One way of ensuring the human element is included is to work in collaboration with citizens and communities to develop a set of indicators or success factors for smart city projects. The existing EU Smart Cities Stakeholder Platform is already considering these issues and may be the vehicle for such an effort.

Open data and citizen innovation

Another way of involving citizens is to put the technology and data in more hands to allow innovation at the level of the citizen. If our lifestyles and the way we interact with our urban environments have to change in order to achieve sustainability, the role of ICT should be to make these changes easier, more appealing and more convenient. To make this happen we need an explosion of innovation at a consumer level. Such innovation can be catalysed by making the underlying data on urban life accessible to more people as open data.

As I argue here, the great promise of open data is that it breaks the one-to-one relationship between those who produce data and those who provide services based on that data. Allowing small-scale developers to develop applications based on data gathered by public authorities or infrastructure providers can greatly expand the uses to which this data is put. Putting intelligent transport or energy-efficiency apps in the hands of citizens can provide a feedback loop between citizen and city, giving citizens the tools to drive the smart city agenda.

The case for public data – generated and stored at public expense – being openly available is easily made and the EU has recently adopted new rules on this basis. However to really fuel an explosion of “smart citizen” innovation, data collected by the private sector must be included, and policy makers will have to consider what incentives and safeguards should be in place to facilitate this.

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

China, Coal and Climate Change: Reasons for Optimism?

“What’s the point in the west acting on climate change? Isn’t China building a new coal power plant every week?”

How many times have you heard this? As well as being a casual conversation stopper, this narrative is a powerful argument for caution or inaction in developed countries. What’s the point of cutting our carbon emissions, this argument asks, if we end up being out-competed by an endlessly growing, high-carbon China? Particularly in the US, but also in Europe, this line of thinking has had the effect of blocking moves that would help to advance a global deal on climate change.

So are these proverbial coal plants actually being built at such a rate? Activists often point to the high rate at which China is closing down older, less efficient coal plants, but in net terms 50GW of coal-fired generation capacity was added during 2012, easily equivalent to one plant per week. The IEA estimates that coal generation will expand by 600GW by 2035. According to BP, in 2013 China accounted for more than half of the world’s coal consumption for the first time.

But this is not the whole picture. While it is true to say that China continues to rapidly expand its use of coal, it would be entirely wrong to suggest that the country is ignoring or opting out of global efforts to transition to a lower-carbon future. China’s most recent five-year plan, covering the period 2011-2015, places a significant emphasis on the development of clean energy and low carbon industries. The investment levels in renewable energy and electricity grid renewal match or outstrip what is being done in the EU. In fact China is the world’s largest investor in clean energy, increasing its investment levels by 20% in 2012, a year which saw major drops in investment in the United States and Europe.

More recently, the news that China was considering moving to an absolute cap on emissions was greeted with glee by climate activists. The move was hailed as a potential “game changer” that could unlock negotiations towards a global climate deal. Such a shift by China would put pressure on other countries, particularly the USA, to commit to more ambitious action on emissions.

The news was based on reports in the Chinese media, picked up by the Financial Times and London Independent among others, that China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the powerful government economic planning body, was recommending moving from carbon intensity targets towards absolute national caps on emissions. Such a move would take effect from 2016, the start date of the next five-year plan. Given the NDRC’s central role in the economic planning process, it was assumed that such a proposal would receive the backing of the State Council, and that China was getting ready to shake up the international negotiations.

Once the latest round of talks got underway in Bonn, however, Chinese negotiators dampened the speculation by stating that they were sticking with carbon intensity targets and would not be bringing any proposals for a cap to the negotiations. The country’s chief negotiator Su Wei pointed out that reports were based on the views of an expert working within the NDRC, and did not necessarily represent the views of the government or indeed of the NDRC itself. However the fact that the idea was floated in the Chinese press is probably not without significance.

In any case, China is already rolling out cap-and-trade schemes on a pilot basis in seven regions of the country. These schemes will cover up to a billion tonnes of CO2 and could potentially be the basis of a national emissions trading scheme in the future. In the meantime, however, there are fears that regions in the pilot schemes will simply “outsource” their emissions to less developed regions of the country.

At their informal summit in California earlier this month, US President Obama and Chinese President XI Jinping agreed to take action on reducing emissions of one particular class of greenhouse gases, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The agreement sidesteps the UNFCCC process by proposing to work through the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which was aimed at protecting the ozone layer. HFCs are not ozone-depleting substances, but they are in increasing use as replacements for other substances such as chlorfluorocarbons (CFCs) which are being phased out under the Montreal Protocol. The idea behind the US-China agreement is to use the expertise and institutions built up under Montreal to reduce HFC emissions.

HFCs are one of a class of greenhouse gases known as short-lived climate pollutants or forcers (SLCPs), which are important contributors to global warming. In the aftermath of the last COP at Doha I wrote about the potential of multilateral, multi-level, voluntary initiatives such as the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants (CCAC) to deliver quick wins in terms of slowing global warming. However HFCs account for only a small portion of this potential benefit. The agreement between the US and China talks about eliminating 90 gigatons of CO2 equivalent by 2050. Climate modeller Chris Hope estimates that this would translate into a reduction in global mean temperature by 0.04 degrees Celsius.

The agreement with the US on HFCs is at least symbolically important, and could pave the way for greater involvement by China in other initiatives to cut SLCPs. It also signals that both China and the US are seeking opportunities to demonstrate action on climate change, even if they lie outside the mainstream at present.

None of these hopeful signs demonstrate that China can break its dependence on fossil fuels. However they do show that China is engaged with the climate challenge and, like the rest of us, struggling in its own way to combine the imperatives of transition to a low-carbon future with its own economic and competitive interests. China is hardly the only country to be working through policy contradictions: the spectacle of the European Union risking a trade war with China over imports of cheap solar power cells of all things is hardly the best example of policy coherence on our part.

So while it would be wrong to talk about “Green China” it would be equally wrong to succumb to the myth that China continues to drive headlong towards a high-carbon future without any consideration for environmental limits. We shouldn’t oversell the progress China is likely to make but neither can we use the challenge of a developing China as an excuse for inaction.

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

Climate Technofix: The Search for a Silver Bullet

We can put a man on the moon but we can’t stop the world warming by a few measly degrees?

“Technofix” is shorthand for the idea that the climate challenge will ultimately be solved by a technological fix that will obviate the need for expensive and disruptive policy measures. Humanity has achieved some amazing things in recent years when it put its minds to it: the eradication of smallpox, the “green revolution” in food production, the moon landings for example. So why can’t we arrange for a technical effort on a par with the Apollo Program to fix our climate? Some people believe we can, either through the discovery of an as-yet-unknown cheap low-carbon energy source, or through “geoengineering” the planet to control its climate.

It’s easy to dismiss geoengineering proposals as the stuff of science fiction, but as time wears on and our mitigation efforts fail to keep pace with the scale of the climate problem, there will be louder calls for consideration of radical technical responses. There are already calls for more research into these approaches, so that the world is ready if and when conventional mitigation approaches fail and we need to break out our options of last resort.

One category of geoengineering involves various ways of dimming the sun’s influence on global temperatures as a counterbalance to the heat-trapping effect of greenhouse gases. This category includes plans to spray sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect back more of the sun’s rays, “whitening” clouds by spraying seawater at them, turning deserts into vast reflective surfaces, and even deploying gigantic mirrors in space. The other main category of geoengineering involves techniques to remove carbon from the atmosphere in various ways, including inducing plankton blooms through fertilisation of the oceans with iron.

A general problem shared by many geoengineering schemes is that for all we know the cure might be as bad as the disease. It’s known that so-called “sunshade” schemes will limit rainfall but the impact on regional climates cannot be reliably predicted. The European Union, through its Seventh Framework Programme for Research, has funded a major project to assess the implications and risks of such proposals. The initial findings suggest a global reduction in rainfall of about 5%, with much larger reductions across large areas in North America, northern Eurasia and South America.

While geoengineering will continue to receive attention, only the most hopeless optimists believe it will be a technofix for climate change in any real sense. Geoengineering techniques only approach viability when all other mitigation efforts have failed and catastrophic climate change is locked in. However unless and until we can predict the regional consequences of such techniques it’s hard to imagine a circumstance in which the world would agree to attempt them, even as a last resort.

Carbon Capture and Storage/Sequestration (CCS) — which involves capturing carbon dioxide at the point of combustion, compressing it and pumping it underground into depleted gas fields or other geological formations – has a lot in common with the second category of geoengineering mentioned above. Far from being science fiction, CCS is a relatively “respectable” technofix with a great deal of official support. The European Union has offered two separate funding streams to support CCS technology, with the aim of getting a number of demonstration projects up and running by 2015. To date the take-up has been nil. Part of the problem is the reluctance of member states to come up with the necessary matching funds, but in the most recent case the steel giant ArcelorMittal pulled out of a proposed “green” steelmaking project in northern France, despite all the funding being in place, citing technical reasons. A second call for proposals under the NER300 programme is currently open.

Despite the immaturity of the technology it has strong proponents in both industry and civil society. Recently the respected climate scientist Myles Allen issued a high-profile call to effectively bet the planet on CCS. In an article for the UK’s Mail on Sunday he wrote:

It is perfectly possible to burn fossil carbon and not release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: you have to filter it out of the flue gases, pressurise it, and re-inject, or ‘sequester’, it back underground. … The only thing that actually matters for climate policy is whether, before we release too much, we get to the point of burying carbon at the same rate that we dig it up.

Nothing else matters – not for climate, anyway. Not efficiency targets, nor even population growth, provided we meet this goal.

The framing of Allen’s Mail on Sunday article is interesting. The newspaper’s editors prefaced it as follows: “The MoS has campaigned tirelessly against the folly of Britain’s eco-obsessed energy policy. Now comes a game-changing intervention… from an expert respected by the green fanatics themselves”. The Mail has been campaigning against climate change policies on the basis that they unnecessarily drive up energy costs, and it clearly sees Allen’s intervention as helpful to this agenda. Of course the policy proposed by Allen has exactly the same effect as the policies it derides as “eco-obsessed”: adding costs to energy in order to mitigate climate change.

The attraction of Allen’s approach is that it sweeps away all the complications attending to climate policy, emissions trading schemes, renewable energy supports and efficiency targets in favour of a single policy that places the obligation for emissions reduction squarely on the shoulders of the emitters. Allen is at his most persuasive when he presents the issue of GHG emissions as essentially a waste management challenge: why shouldn’t those who emit harmful by-products be made responsible for their removal and storage?

As is so often the case, the simplicity of the scheme is seductive but deceptive. Even if we accept, purely for the sake of argument, his wishful thinking that a global deal would not be required to implement the policy, we have to contend with some very real practical limitations. Even if we assume the technology moves relatively rapidly from demonstration to production status, the scale of the challenge inherent in rolling it out on any appreciable scale is enormous. The Canadian scientist Vaclav Smil offers an illustration:

…in order to sequester just a fifth of current CO2 emissions we would have to create an entirely new worldwide absorption-gathering- compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual volume now handled by the global crude oil industry whose immense infrastructure of wells, pipelines, compressor stations and storages took generations to build.

Is it likely that the development of such an infrastructure would attract less public resistance than renewable energy installations for example? Given the problems of scale, the most plausible prospect for CCS remains that suggested in the IPCC’s 2005 report on the technology: it will be part of a “portfolio” of mitigation measures rather than a silver bullet.

The search for a silver bullet may be one of the strains of thought that limits the public appetite for action on climate change. Dramatic advances in recent times have given us a degree of faith in humanity’s ingenuity which is warranted but risks blinding us to the fact that not all problems can be solved with technology alone.

In terms of climate change, the fallacy is assuming that technological solutions will be seamlessly integrated into our current way of life, and will allow us to carry on as before while the smart people get on with fixing the climate. The reality is that the roll-out of new technologies, such as CCS and smart grids, will be part of a wider societal shift to a low-carbon economy. We will not be passive observers of the solutions to climate change, we will be active participants in changing how we do things, how we consume energy, how we travel and how we eat.

For example, smart grid technology represents a major technological advance on our current electricity distribution systems, but its role in decarbonisation is not necessarily a seamless transition for the public. Smart grids enable advanced demand management techniques including the ability to power down connected appliances such as fridges and washing machines to address spikes in demand or troughs in supply. These innovations have already been branded as “sinister” creations of “big brother” power companies by our friends in the Daily Mail, and how to deploy the technology in a publicly acceptable way is a key challenge.

The reality is that in the fields of renewable energy, electricity distribution, and resource and energy efficiency the world is already engaged in a technological and political effort that dwarfs the Apollo Program in scale. Unfortunately it is decentralised, multifaceted, messy, uncertain and, at present, underperforming. We are not in a position to present the public with any reliable vision of a low-carbon future, let alone one in which the role of technology is well understood.

Of course we can never rule out a game-changing breakthrough, but if there really is a “silver bullet” technological solution to climate change, at present it lies not just outside our technical capabilities but outside our imaginative capacity.

Note: The Dublin Climate Gathering, taking place in June, will address the intersection of digital technology with the climate change challenge. For more information see

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Climate Change and the Arts

How can we make people care enough about the problem of climate change to demand the types of responses we know are necessary?

The first Climate Gathering earlier this year brought a diverse and international group of scientists, academics, business people and campaigners to Ballyvaughan in Co. Clare to consider this question. The venue was an art college and the discussions took place in gallery spaces hung with the work of art students and visiting visual artists. A handful of artists and cultural practitioners were also deliberately included in the mix of participants. The idea was to engender a mood of creativity, to encourage people to approach the climate problem from different angles and to abandon the language of their own discipline in favour of a more universal discourse. The artists we included had valuable insights to contribute to the conversation.

The intention was not specifically to address the role of the arts in responding to climate change. However the surroundings and the presence of artists such as Martin Hayes, the renowned fiddler, inevitably prompted many participants to consider this question. They felt at first hand the direct emotional grip artistic expression can exert on an individual and began to wonder whether this provided an answer to the question the climate policy community is always asking.

One of the participants, Professor Andy Hoffman, Director of the Erb Institute for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan and an authority on the sociology of climate change, put the question in this way:

“Among many things, one notion that has emerged for me is the importance of connecting with the Arts: poets, musicians, writers, painters, etc to translate climate change for lay people through their medium.  Only when climate change has personal and salient meaning will people take an interest that will create change.”

Accordingly this angle has been identified as one of the threads from the Climate Gathering that merits further thought and action. Of course the idea of connecting with the arts is not new: campaigners and policymakers have long understood the potential of the arts to raise awareness and build support. Politicians and other policy communicators know that artists have the power to connect with people on a deeper level than even the most carefully honed political or advertising campaign, let alone dry statements of scientific facts.

In terms of climate change, the arts could be particularly important to imaginatively bridging the temporal and spatial distance which separates our actions from their consequences. Scientific and political communication must be couched in uncertainty, particularly when dealing with the more distant effects of climate change. As another Climate Gathering participant noted, today’s emissions will contribute to impacts many decades into the future: how do you get people to take action now to stop something bad happening in sixty years, when you can’t even tell them with certainty what those consequences will be? Visual communication of information can certainly help, for example this site (the Environment Nexus) attempts to harness the power of the visual through infographics, videos and other media to connect people with complex policy information in an appealing format. However authors, poets, filmmakers, and other artists and storytellers can go further: taking advantage of artistic licence to transport readers or audience members directly into possible futures, or to make them feel closer on a personal level to people in faraway places already dealing with the consequences of climate change.

Given the awareness of the power of the arts, and the essential role for imaginative expression in making the consequences of climate change real, why then is our culture not more suffused with artworks that grapple with this defining issue of our age? In 2005, Bill McKibben asked, “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” These questions remain valid today.

Of course that is not to say that there is no current art that engages with climate change. It is relatively easy to compile a long list of artistic and cultural projects with a specific climate theme, such as those mentioned in thisblog post by Adam Corner of the Climate Outreach and Information Network. There are a large number of individual artists who personally care a great deal about the issue and attempt to address it in their work, and there are publicly-funded initiatives to foster this type of creativity, including the European Union-funded Imagine 2020programme.

It is much harder, however, to instance art works that have reached into the wider public consciousness as profoundly as the scale of the issue seems to demand. Many forms of artistic expression by their nature will only ever reach a limited audience, but great popular art forms such as films, novels, music and even plays provide few examples of resonant works engaging with climate change as a big issue of the day. McKibben suggest a few reasons: the problem is too big, the urgent crowds out the important, the heroes and villains are not drawn clearly enough, there is already no prospect of an unqualified happy ending. This might explain, for example, Hollywood’spatchy relationship with the issue.

Film documentaries, lying on the border between information provision and artistic expression, have of course played an important role in climate discourse. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth brought the basic propositions behind climate change to a large audience in a direct and accessible fashion, even if it undermined its central thrust by ending with an anticlimactic list of “personal” actions audience members could take to help stave off future catastrophe. Documentaries can also put before us the stories of those already being affected by climate change. For example last year the German MEP Ska Keller produced a short film called Climate Changes Migration which was shown at the opening of a hearing in the European Parliament on the impacts of climate change on migration. Of course this approach doesn’t in itself resolve the problem of perceived distance: we are still apt to see such documentaries as dispatches from faraway places.

So how could we improve on this apparent absence of climate in mainstream cultural expression? The UN has specifically entreated the Hollywood community to engage with climate change. At a special event in Los Angelesin 2011, Ban Ki-Moon told an audience of filmmakers and movie industry players, “You have power and influence to send to millions and billions of people around the world.” UNFCCC head, Christiana Figueres, told them, “We need you to make it sexy and cool to bring about the energy revolution that has to happen.”

It’s hard not to cringe a little at this last appeal. However, if the commercial world didn’t believe that Hollywood had the power to make their products and services “sexy and cool” they would not spend so many billions ensuring they feature within film narratives. There is certainly a logic to this “product placement” approach and the Grantham and ClimateWorks Foundations have funded the Climate Change Storytelling Initiative to provide advice to filmmakers on how to dramatise real impacts of climate change and to positively portray environmentally sustainable choices and lifestyles. However it is questionable if this approach can mobilise the real power of the arts or if it is just an extension of an advertising-based public communication model.

A more interesting and possibly more productive model is to integrate artistic expression, and particularly storytelling, into the movements advocating for change. A movement which claims not to be advocating for change might provide some inspiration: The Dark Mountain Project explicitly weaves the arts into a manifesto of a social movement, although it protests that it is not an activist or political organisation, and specifically states that it is not “seeking to use writing or art to ‘save the planet’ or stop climate change”. It could be viewed purely as an art project, in that the only output it promises are stories and other cultural expressions. However it is founded on an assertion that the roots of the social, economic and ecological crises we face “lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves”. In this sense it acknowledges the political utility of narrative and by implication the political import of its activities.

Those of us who don’t necessarily share Dark Mountain’s view that collapse is inevitable and in some ways desirable might still learn from them. The stories we tell ourselves do matter, and these stories are told through artistic expression at all levels: mainstream popular culture, the rarefied peaks of “high” culture, local and community-based artistic activity. Rather than telling artists what stories we would like them to tell, however, we should perhaps be learning from artists about how to tell our own stories.

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

Measurement Matters: Water and the Millennium Development Goals

It is just over one year since UNICEF and the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced a significant milestone in progress towards meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The goal of halving the proportion of the global population without access to safe water had been met, and several years ahead of the target date of 2015. Naturally this bit of good news merited celebration, especially as several other MDGs remain stubbornly resistant to progress, for example in the areas of hunger, maternal mortality, and employment. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was upbeat: “Today we recognise a great achievement for the people of the world. This is one of the first MDG targets to be met. The successful efforts to provide greater access to drinking water are a testament to all who see the MDGs not as a dream, but as a vital tool for improving the lives of millions of the poorest people.”

It wasn’t long, however, before some wondered whether the celebration was premature. The main sour note, acknowledged in the announcement, was the fact that the related goal of ensuring that 75% of the population has access to improved sanitation was still far from being met, and is not likely to be met by 2015.

Another issue raised by water NGOs was whether the achievement of the headline goal masked the reality on the ground. Ned Breslin, CEO of the US NGO Water for People, took issue with the fact that achievement of the goal was based on the metric of “access” to an improved water supply, rather than on the functionality of that supply. In other words, populations might be reporting that a handpump was available to them but the data was silent on whether this supply was actually working. Breslin cited examples of studies in Mozambique, Liberia and Malawi where detailed data collected on the ground painted a less rosy picture: in the case of the Sanga district of Mozambique, Breslin estimated that 21.91 per cent of the population had access to a functional improved water supply, in contrast to the 72.9 per cent reported by UNICEF/WHO’s Joint Monitoring Project (JMP).

The JMP, however, would deny that their figures take no account of functionality. Their access estimates are based on extrapolating from household surveys or national censuses the number of people who “use” an improved water supply, implying that respondents would only report use of a functional supply.

The other measurement issue is whether access to “improved” water supplies is really a valid proxy for access to “safe” water supplies. The only way to get an accurate figure for the proportion of the global population using safe water would be to undertake water quality testing everywhere, which is not currently practicable. The assumption made by the JMP is that an improved water supply, i.e. piped water or water from a protected well, is safer than water drawn directly from unprotected or polluted rivers and ponds. However it acknowledges that access to an improved supply does not necessarily mean access to safe water. Nobody knows precisely how many people lack access to safe water, with estimates falling in the range one to four billion, compared with the JMP’s estimate of 783 million without access to an improved resource.

The main message from all this wrangling over metrics is that measurement is difficult, costly, and contentious. Everybody wants to be able to monitor impact, but national governments and international donors are sensitive to costly research projects using up money that could otherwise be directed to providing infrastructure. Nonetheless there are efforts underway to improve the quality of data available on progress towards universal access to safe water. The WASH Monitoring Exchange is the initiative of a group of NGOs, funders and academics to find the best balance between cost and reliability in monitoring the sustainability of water projects undertaken by development organisations. While it is aimed primarily at tracking NGO projects, if a reliable and cost-effective set of indicators emerge it could have wider applicability. Others are making use of multiple data sources to model the likely discrepancy between “improved” and “safe” water supplies.

Measurement matters, but it has to be acknowledged that the Millennium Development Goals are not primarily about selecting the most accurate indicators of global development: they are about rallying the global community around a series of agreed common objectives which are specific enough to be tracked but general enough to be easily understood. With the 2015 target date now close, it is less useful to argue about the right indicators for tracking progress up to that point than to learn from the MDG experience to set out the most effective goals for the post-2015 period. As well as balancing cost and reliability of data collection, the UN must ensure the chosen indicators encapsulate a vision of improved quality of life that is broad enough to be widely accepted.

This process of developing a post-2015 framework got underway in earnest at the start of 2012. A UN “Special Event” will be held in September 2013 to review progress towards the MDGs and it is hoped that this session will also consider the post-2015 framework. The Irish Presidency of the EU has an important role in the unfolding discussion, as it works to bring together the Union’s common position on the future of development policy in advance of the Special Event.

The broader issue is that the MDGs are a snapshot: they are based on capturing the status of indicators at a set point in time, as well as tracking progress towards that target date. The goals set out for the post-2015 period should encapsulate sustainability over time. This is particularly true in the case of water, given the high failure ratesof water systems, not to mention the multiple stresses that might threaten or reverse progress towards universal access to safe water, including climate change, population increase and conflict. The post-2015 vision must be of development progress capable of being sustained into the future: this might mean integrating development and environmental goals.

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

Who Owns our Water in Europe? And Does it Matter?

The Irish government is currently in the process of centralising the State’s water services into a single entity to be known as Irish Water. The new authority will be structured as a utility company, and will be housed within Bord Gáis, the state-owned gas and energy provider. Its first task will be the nationwide roll-out of water meters, in advance of charges for domestic water supply being introduced in 2014. The reforms have led opposition spokespeople to raise the spectre of privatisation of water services in Ireland, although current Irish law guarantees that water supply will remain in public hands. The Minister responsible, Fergus O’Dowd, has strongly denied that privatisation is on this Government’s agenda. However the utility model and the introduction of charges have led some to suggest that privatisation will in the future become a logical next step. It could be said that most of the difficult work that would be involved in privatising water is now being done: moving water services from municipal and central government control into a commercial enterprise, albeit state-owned; installing meters in 1.3 million households to allow for domestic charging; creating a customer-supplier relationship between the water utility and every water user in the state. Once all of this heavy lifting is out of the way, a change in the ownership of the utility could be effected relatively easily.

The Minister is right to point out that across Europe public ownership of water services is the rule rather than the exception, although this is not to say that there isn’t significant private involvement in water and sanitation. The system in place in England and Wales stands out as an example of a completely privatised approach. In France about 70 per cent of the population are supplied with drinking water by a private operator, and French water companies also have a significant role in water services in Spain. Water systems in Europe have evolved over the centuries with the public and private sectors taking the lead to a greater or lesser extent at various times in different countries, so it’s no surprise to find heterogeneity in ownership models across the EU, and even within Member States. Although the EU is ostensibly neutral on the question of water ownership, there has recently been a debate on whether the European Commission is promoting privatisation through the back door, through its role in framing bailout programmes for financially distressed Member States, and through its proposals for a new Concessions Directive governing certain types of public-private partnerships.

In the case of bailout agreements, the Commission has been accused by campaigners (including labour unions and environmentalists) of insisting on privatisation programmes that include the sell-off of municipal water companies. In Greece the bailout agreement requires the selling off the State’s majority stakes in the already part-privatised Athens and Thessaloniki water and sewerage companies, while Portugal is under pressure to dispose of its state-owned water company. The Commission does not admit to actively promoting water privatisation for its own sake in these bailed-out countries, but campaigners point to its history of favouring privatisation in development aid agreements and international trade negotiations. The Commission can maintain its officially neutral stance on ownership of water services by pointing out that the privatisation measures are being carried out by the insolvent national governments themselves in order to raise money to keep other public services running. 

More recently, the proposed Concessions Directive has become part of this debate. The Directive is seen as necessary to regularise the way public authorities in Member States enter into partnerships with the private sector to provide services of general economic interest. A contract to operate public water infrastructure is a good example of a concession, and other examples include toll roads, waste disposal and energy generation. The Commission sees as a loophole the fact that there are no specific rules governing the award of such contracts, giving rise to risks of fraud, favouritism and lack of transparency. While the proposed text restates that, in keeping with Article 345 of the Treaty, nothing in the Directive will prejudice Member States’ own system of property ownership, it also talks of “a real opening up of the market” in respect of water, energy, transport and postal services. It is not only this language but also fears about the practical operation of the Directive which have led campaigners to class it as another attempt to promote privatisation of water. 

The general concern is that the conditions imposed by the Directive will result in a situation where public authorities find it easier and less legally risky to tender out concessions for water supply rather than providing the service themselves. As with Minister O’Dowd in Ireland, Internal Market Commissioner Barnier has been on the defensive against such claims, denying that the Directive will have any such effect. In a statement on 23 January 2013 he affirmed that the proposed Directive will “not lead to forced privatisation of water services. Public authorities will at all times remain free to choose whether the provide the services directly or via private operators.” This clearly did not settle the matter as a month later he took the somewhat unusual step of issuing a joint statement with Environment Commissioner Potocnik to the same effect. This followed a meeting of the European Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) at which he pledged to make changes to the proposed text to clarify its intentions: 

In response to certain false accusations, allow me to be perfectly clear, precise and formal: the Commission is not seeking in any way whatsoever to privatise water management – neither today nor tomorrow. This directive does not aim and will not have the effect of bringing about a forced privatisation of drinking water supply services. I am willing to make the necessary clarifications to the text in the three-way talks.

The Committee, having at an earlier meeting rejected a proposal to remove water from the remit of the Directive altogether, voted to get the trialogue underway. It remains to be seen what clarifications the Commissioner is willing to offer as part of this process, but IMCO’s rapporteur, Phillipe Juvin (EPP/France), is hoping for agreement that the text will include a solemn statement that water privatisation is not intended. 

The political pressure that has caused the Commissioner to take such pains to clarify his intentions demonstrates the importance placed on public ownership of water in many parts of Europe. A civil society group led by the European Federation of Public Services Unions (EPSU) and comprising labour unions as well as public water operators and environmentalists is leading a Citizens’ Initiative which has attracted more than 1.2 million signatures since September 2012, calling for guaranteed water and sanitation for all citizens and an end to liberalisation of water services. The vast bulk of these signatures have come from Germany, but the campaign is not far off reaching the required numbers in seven Member States. Campaigns are also underway to “remunicipalise” private water services, particularly in France.

What does this debate about water ownership mean for water policy, particularly the resource efficiency agenda that is central to the Commissions’s Blueprint to Safeguard Europe’s Waters? Ensuring the full implementation of water pricing with incentives for efficiency is a key objective of the Blueprint. The current experience in Ireland is a demonstration that in many cases the policies required to promote efficient use of water are often the same as those required to prepare public water systems for privatisation. Public fears that metering and full cost recovery are Trojan horses for selling off of water services cannot be lightly dismissed, given the history of similar policies in the waste sector, for example, and the less than convincing claims by European authorities to be entirely neutral on the question. However by the same token there is nothing to suggest that, with the right policies, resource efficiency cannot be maximised while keeping water services in public hands. The efficiency agenda will in any case require a great deal of public goodwill – this often scarce resource might be maximised if populations can be convincingly reassured that they will retain choice in the ownership model of their water services.

A Tale of Three Targets: The 2030 Climate and Energy Debate

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

Are targets falling out of fashion? The Irish government has just published the general scheme of a “Climate Action and Low Carbon Development” Bill which is largely a rehash of the 2010 Climate Change Response Bill with the emission reduction targets for 2030 and 2050 removed. Instead, the Bill adopts a general aim of “transition to a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy in the period up to and including the year 2050”, and promises to be consistent with any existing or future obligations under international agreements. In other words the Bill commits the Irish government to whatever it might sign up to in the future, through the EU or UNFCCC. The underlying assumption is that the EU will adopt binding emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050, as it has already done for 2020, and that the Irish state will go along with whatever these might turn out to be (as it will be obliged to do in any case).

What the 2030 targets turn out to be is the subject of discussion at European Commission level at present. As mentioned in my last post, the Commission is currently working on a Green Paper on the EU’s own climate and energy framework for 2030, and the Commissioners met on 20 February 2013 to consider the issues. One of the main questions being considered is whether to replicate the 2020 framework in terms of targets.

For 2020 the EU has adopted binding targets for both greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction and renewable energy adoption, as well as a third, non-binding, target for energy efficiency. The Commission is considering whether a single target, for GHG reduction, could also drive the renewables and energy efficiency objectives without the need for separate targets in these areas. A single target would address some of the criticism of the 2020 package, which some stakeholders argued was not properly analysed for coherence in terms of the interactions between the various instruments. For example there was debate within the Commission itself as to whether proposals to drive energy efficiency, could undermine the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). A recent report for the European Parliament concludes that such effects are limited, however it does point to important interactions between the ETS and the Renewables Directive.

Of course another way to address this criticism is to undertake a proper analysis of the interactions between the three targets in the first instance. The Commission certainly seem determined that the 2030 package will be based on solid analysis, however there is concern in some quarters that the issue is being pre-judged, with references to “streamlining” the current approach. The renewable energy industry is understandably keen to see the target for renewable share retained and environment and energy NGOs are arguing strongly for the retention of all three targets, with the Climate Action Network and others calling for a binding energy savings target. Their strongest argument in favour of this approach is that the binding targets in the 2020 package have worked. Partly through the effects of recession, the EU is on track to meet its binding GHG and renewable targets, but not the voluntary energy savings target. The benefit of meeting the energy savings target is estimated by Ecofys to be more than €200 billion a year by 2020.

Whatever direction the Commission takes on this issue, steering the ultimate package through the other European institutions will be far from straightforward. The Commission has already set out its high-level programme for decarbonisation by 2050 in a series of roadmaps or White Papers published during 2011, but the Council has been unable to adopt conclusions on these documents, because of the reluctance of some Member States to commit to 2030 milestones. It is widely known that Poland is the Member State showing most reluctance in committing to these targets, indeed its present policy seems totally set against any agreement that would bind it to serious reductions in carbon emissions.

Poland’s problem is largely one of energy security. It wants to continue burning its own coal so that it doesn’t have to rely on Russian natural gas. As well as being one of the ten largest producers of coal in the world, Poland is dependent on the fuel for 90% of its electricity generation. It wants the freedom to replace its aging coal-fired power stations with massive new plants, maintaining its carbon-intensive power generation and industrial system, and leaving little room for investment in renewables. The sensitivity of Poland’s policymakers to this energy security issue is perhaps demonstrated in the heavy-handed way they have dealt with environmental groups who have questioned the provision of new coal-fired power stations.

As a bloc, however, the EU is more heavily dependent on energy imports than the US or Japan, which drives the need to increase the share of renewables and reduce overall energy demand. Poland’s specific conditions and concerns will have to in some way be accommodated in order for the EU to move forward with this larger agenda. The Commission’s Green Paper will have to indicate what flexibilities it might be able to offer to take account of “national circumstances”. However the path Poland is currently taking is incompatible with decarbonisation and there is a limit to how much “flexibility” can be offered in these circumstances.

At the present time, therefore, targets for 2020, 2030 and 2050 are all in play. Of these, 2030 is probably the most critical. While the final level of ambition for 2020 has not been set, a binding target for emissions reductions is in place and how the burden of these reductions will be shared among member states is known. The EU has signaled its willingness to move from a 20% reduction target to a 30% target in the context of a global climate deal, but national policymakers and the investment community broadly know the parameters in which they will operate up until 2020. Given its distance into the future, goals set for 2050 can still be treated as aspirational. One suspects, for example, that while investors will take note of the Transport White Paper goal of no conventionally-fuelled cars in cities by 2050, this proposal will not drive any major decisions until the policy pathway emerges in greater detail.

2030, on the other hand, is well within the time horizon of major decisions which are currently being made on energy, infrastructure and other investment. Infrastructure developed now will largely still be in place in 2030, so when we talk about decisions for 2030 we are really talking about the present day. This is well-recognised by the Commission, which is pushing to have the 2030 framework ready by the end of 2013. However political and practical realities, highlighted by the current difficulties in agreeing the ETS backloading proposal, suggest that the timeframe for adoption of any such package will be much longer. Indeed it will probably be well into the term of the next Commission and Parliament before any targets are set.

The Dog that didn’t Bark at Doha: International Cooperative Initiatives

This post was written for the IIEA‘s Environment Nexus web site. View the original post

Depending on who you ask, you are likely to hear one of two distinct narratives about the outcome of the recent UN climate talks (COP18) in Doha. On the one hand, there is the official narrative that Doha represented solid progress on the road to a 2015 global deal as envisioned in the Durban Platform, particularly in the agreement for a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, and in the streamlining of the negotiations themselves. On the other hand, NGOs and other observers are likely to point to the fact that absolutely nothing was agreed at Doha that comes near to matching the scale of the challenge faced.

For examples of these two contrasting viewpoints you need look no further than the IIEA’s recent post-Doha workshop, where David Walsh of the Irish Department of the Environment expressed satisfaction on behalf of the Irish EU Presidency that all of the Union’s main negotiation objectives were achieved, while Ciara Gaynor of Oxfam pointed out that there was absolutely no shift in entrenched positions on increasing mitigation ambition or guaranteeing increased climate finance.

Of course while both of these narratives are correct in a sense, we will have to await the outcome of the process begun at Durban (known as ADP in the UNFCCC shorthand or the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action) before we know if one is more correct than the other. If the streamlining and other incremental improvements achieved at Doha ultimately assist in the process of reaching agreement on an ambitious package in 2015, then all of the blood, sweat and air miles shed at COP18 will clearly have been worth it. However if COP21 (à Paris?) turns out to be another Copenhagen, then the technical victories claimed by the EU and others at the end of last year will sound very hollow indeed.

Certainly the outcomes of Doha will continue to keep everybody busy. The EU now begins a process of formally ratifying the second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol, while dealing with other technical matters such as negotiating the UNFCCC’s budget and finalising ADP agendas. On a broader level, work is underway by the European Commission on two green papers; one to inform the EU’s thinking on the shape and form of the 2015 agreement and the other on the EU’s climate and energy vision for 2030. Both documents are expected to be published later this spring. Submissions on each of the ADP’s two workstreams are also due by 1 March 2013: Workstream 1 deals with the preparations for a global deal in 2015, while Workstream 2 focused on how to increase mitigation ambition in the period prior to 2020.

One of the EU’s negotiating objectives that was unsuccessful at Doha was the aim of achieving recognition of international cooperative initiatives (ICIs) as a means of increasing ambition pre-2020. ICIs are voluntary mitigation partnerships which can operate at a number of levels, including between national governments, sub-national entities, civil society or private sector actors.  At the pre-Doha roundtables they were referred to as “additional supplementary actions and initiatives”, and a number of possible approaches were instanced:

(a) Strengthening the co-operation on enhancing energy efficiency in all sectors and promoting renewable energy;

(b) Reducing production and use of HFCs under the Montreal Protocol;

(c) Implementing initiatives in the transport sector including those addressing emissions from international aviation and maritime transport by the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the International Maritime Organisation;

(d) Removing fossil fuel subsidies, including by co-operative effort in the context of G20 initiatives; and

(e) Promoting cooperation on initiatives to address short-lived climate pollutants.

The final item in this list provides a useful example of an existing ICI, as in February 2012 a group of six governments came together to form the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short Lived Climate Pollutants, under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). This is a voluntary partnership that is open to non-state actors as well as governments, and by the time of the Doha COP it was able to deliver pledges by twenty-five countries to take action to reduce black carbon (a component of soot), methane, HFCs and other short-lived climate pollutants or forcers (SLCPs). In addition to some of the bigger member states, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the European Commission is a partner in the Coalition and has pledged to take action through its air quality and waste policy programmes.

In January 2013 the impetus for reducing SLCPs became even stronger with a major scientific study which concluded that black carbon is second only to carbon dioxide as a contributor to global warming. Even before this most recent study, it was estimated that reducing emissions of black carbon and methane could slow global warming by up to 0.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, which is significant in anyone’s book. As one of the major warming effects of black carbon is to reduce the reflectivity of ice and snow, regional warming in the Arctic would slow even more. Further, because black carbon is short-lived, persisting in the atmosphere only for a few days, the impact of reducing its emission should be felt much more quickly than corresponding reductions in carbon dioxide, which is slowly washed out of the atmosphere over decades and even centuries.

Given all of the above, there would seem to be reason for cautious optimism that an ICI on black carbon and other SLCPs could contribute significantly to slowing down global warming, while concurrently delivering health benefits and deceleration in warming in particularly sensitive regions such as the Arctic. If mitigation of short-term climate forcers is low-hanging fruit, why then did the EU find so little enthusiasm amongst other parties for formalising such ICIs within the UNFCCC framework?

In an international context the EU’s promotion of ICIs is apt to be seen less for what it can deliver than what it avoids delivering. The EU has already signalled its willingness to adopt a 30% 2020 emissions reduction target, conditional on other parties also stepping up their level of ambition. Talk of increased ambition being delivered via additional action such as ICIs rather than through increases in existing obligations can be interpreted as a signal that a) the EU does not expect other parties to commit themselves to additional obligations; and b) the EU does not itself expect to reach agreement on stepping up its target to 30%.

This may not be an entirely fair characterisation of the EU position: it stresses, for example, that ICIs should not divert effort from increasing the ambition of existing pledges. The EU will continue to promote the inclusion of ICIs as part of the pre-2020 mitigation agenda of the Durban Platform. ICIs will certainly form part of the EU’s March ADP submission on Workstream 2, perhaps with the benefit of some additional analysis on a number of the potential schemes. Being able to quantify the climate benefits of reducing HFCs and other SLCPs would certainly help to build the case, although the science suggests that a high degree of uncertainty as to the potential benefit is likely to remain.

If the UNFCCC process is seen as the global effort to prevent unsafe levels of global warming, then it is logical to argue that it should capture and account for ICIs, given their undoubted potential to contribute to this effort. However it must be acknowledged that “quick wins” on climate do not necessarily contribute to the longer-term goal of transition to a low carbon society. If action on SLCPs is seen to be instead of rather than in addition to progress on the deep structural changes required to decarbonise the economy then “quick wins” can be seen more negatively as “short-term fixes”. Before the EU is in a position to argue persuasively for the recognition of ICIs, it may have to show its hand on its own substantive proposals for pre-2020 ambition. This doesn’t appear likely to happen in advance of the Kyoto Protocol review, which will take place during 2014. So again we have to wait a little longer before we find out which Doha narrative is more justified.

The Oireachtas great leap backwards: it’s not just about

Read this first: Why it matters that the Oireachtas just killed I was going to comment on Simon McGarr’s blog post but the comment grew long enough to merit a post on my own very occasional blog.

I worked in the Oireachtas as a Parliamentary Assistant between 2005 and 2007. At this time there seemed to be a bit of a push behind “eDemocracy” and I was aware of efforts to ensure the provision of acts, bills and debates in structured formats. The grand vision seemed to be that the authoring, amendment and publication of all data related to the Oireachtas would ultimately be compatible with its exposure to the public as structured data. This was very much a work-in-progress at the time, and legacy systems were still centre-stage, in particular the little-loved Lotus Notes.

My understanding of the workflow then and now is that Oireachtas debate records are inputted into Lotus Notes initially and this is the format in which they are first made available to members and staff. Prior to this summer’s changes, they were then parsed into XML files from which the Oireachtas Debates web site was generated. The raw XML files were also publicly available, from which was generated. Theoretically anyone could use these XML files to provide web interfaces to debates but as far as I’m aware is the only site to actually have done so.

The process of converting the raw Lotus Notes records into XML appears to have been outsourced, either to Cahill Printers or Propylon. Propylon certainly created the XML schema and authoring system and their web site claims they “manage and publish the Verbatim Debate records of both houses in multiple formats”. However this useful site by Leo Bollins, who is the Principal of the eDemocracy Unit of the Oireachtas, suggests that Cahill Printers does the actual conversion.

Mark Mulqueen, Head of Communications for the Oireachtas, confirmed to me on Twitter that the recent changes to the site were designed to achieve efficiencies by ending the outsourcing of “a large amount of work involved in debates. That’s where a saving arises.” I asked him if this meant that Propylon were no longer managing the debate records and he replied, “Yes, I can confirm that to be the case. Using existing resources we will provide access to debates more quickly”.

So it appears that the Oireachtas has decided to save time and money by eliminating entirely the stage in their workflow that parsed raw debates records into XML. This stage has been replaced with a (presumably automated) process that generates web pages from Lotus Notes. It’s easy to see how somebody with little appreciation of the value of providing open public data in a structured format could have viewed this stage as a costly luxury, and its elimination as a simple and obvious “efficiency”. It’s particularly disappointing, however, that nobody in the decision-making process seemed to be aware of how much of a backward step this “efficiency” would represent. As John Handelaar of told The Irish Times, “We are replacing 2012 with 1995 overnight”.

The great promise of open data is that it breaks the one-to-one relationship between those who produce data and those who provide services on top of that data. If members of the public want to search or manipulate the Oireachtas records in particular ways, they don’t have to wait for the Oireachtas itself to produce the necessary tools, they can use third-party tools where available, or even build their own. The Houses of the Oireachtas, in their search for efficiencies, have reinstated this one-to-one link, and the public are now entirely dependent on their staff to produce services on top of the debates records. At present this amounts to a keyword search facility that currently produces an “internal server error”. This is not good for the public, and it’s not good for the management of the Oireachtas either.

The standard response of the Oireachtas authorities to the large number of TDs and Senators who have raised the issue is that they want to meet with John Handelaar to try and resolve the issue. That’s the sort of reply that will satisfy most members for the time being, but it reduces the issue to a question of the interface between the Oireachtas and one individual web site (albeit the only web site that has done anything useful with the Oireachtas data). A properly-briefed TD or Senator should be pursuing the issue as a generic open data question: why has the Oireachtas apparently taken such a huge step backwards in its provision of public data in a modern, clean, structured format?

A further pedantic point is that it’s important that queries on this issue are directed to those responsible, i.e. the Houses of the Oireachtas Commision. This Commission, made up of the Ceann Comhairle, Clerk of the Dáíl and a number of TDs and Senators, manages the business of the Oireachtas independent of the government. Its chair is the Ceann Comhairle, Sean Barrett, and his office seems to be the most obvious first port of call.

Phil Hogan: blaming the last guy

A recent Mail on Sunday interview with Phil Hogan, the new Minister for the Environment, is discussed on the Cedar Lounge Revolution. The interview contains a number of attacks by Hogan on his predecessor, John Gormley, for example:

“On his own portfolio, Mr Hogan claims he inherited ‘a dysfunctional department’ from his predecessor, John Gormley. He accuses the former Green leader of ‘badly damaging’ Ireland’s reputation at EU level. ‘There was an enormous amount of legacy issues left to me, including 31 court rulings against Ireland from the European Court of Justice. He allowed them to fester and drag on for the last couple of years. ‘There was a huge amount of procrastinating with the result that we have no waste policy, no water policy, no reform of politics and local government and a damaged international reputation. ‘I also inherited a considerable difficulty in the processing of administration of foreshore applications which was preventing a lot of renewable energy projects, ironically, from being developed, which in turn had implications for the Green economy.’”

I’m not without sympathy for Hogan, as it must be a shock to take office and learn the full extent of Ireland’s failure over the decades to properly implement the European environmental legislation to which it has signed up. However his determination to lay it all at John Gormley’s door needs to be challenged. For the record, the number of EU infringement cases against Ireland decreased by a third during John Gormley’s time as Minister, so Hogan’s charges on that score are entirely baseless. If he can achieve the same in the next 3.5 years he’ll be doing well.

As for “badly damaging Ireland’s reputation at an EU level”, when it came to implementation of environmental legislation Ireland had no reputation to damage. Gormley held regular meetings with successive EU Environment Commissioners on the specific issue of Ireland’s legacy of cases and gave his personal commitment to closing off as many cases as possible. A number of cases which were very close to the stage where fines were to be sought against Ireland were closed, saving the state millions.

If I were feeling mean-minded, of course, I could dig out a series of parliamentary questions from Fine Gael TDs asking the Minister to ease up on the implementation of this or that directive.

The criticism on the processing of foreshore applications is even more unfair, given that John Gormley began the process of modernising a consent process that hadn’t changed substantially since the 1930s. He only assumed responsibility for foreshore licensing in 2010, and significant strides were made in putting in place a transparent process for assessing these applications, in parallel with the development of new foreshore legislation (which Hogan will presumably continue to progress). Prior to 2010 the function had been in the Department of Agriculture, which transferred over a massive backlog of applications to the Department of the Environment in 2010. I think any applicant will confirm that the transparency of the process increased greatly following the transfer.

Finally, I have to wonder what the staff in the Department think of his claim that he inherited a “dysfunctional department”.