Ep53: Eamon Ryan 'Ireland's Jolly Green Giant'

“My sense is that the diplomatic environment is not where it needs to be”: Eamon Ryan on the international politics of climate agreements.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich talks to Eamon Ryan, Leader of the Irish Green Party, Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, and Minister for Transport.

Although of differing political backgrounds, Michael and Eamon find common ground on the importance of liberal democracy in fighting climate change. The market has a place, Eamon agrees, though he sees a greater role for the state if the world is to avert further environmental disaster.

The conversation then moves to the upcoming COP 26 in Glasgow and Eamon’s reservations about the diplomatic climate Ireland and other nations are working in.

This is an abridged transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity.


Michael Liebreich: Eamon, welcome to Cleaning Up. Congratulations on being back behind the wheel of government. What does your new role involve?


Eamon Ryan: I'm leading the Green Party in a three-party coalition and I'm running two departments, but they all work together. It makes sense. They're dealing with the three technological revolutions currently: the digital revolution, the clean energy revolution, and a transport revolution which is really starting. The last time I was in government there was a financial crash. Now it's Covid-19, so it's kind of familiar.


ML: It’s a great pleasure talking to you because politically we ought to disagree on everything. You lead the Green Party, I'm a Conservative, but I see it as critical that we don't give up on democracy because the climate challenge is so big. How do you take the folks who are not well-off urban liberals, but everybody who's really struggling to get through day by day, how do you convince them that the hard work on the environment will be worth it?


ER: The definition of a liberal in my minds is that you're tolerant to the other person's view, even more so if someone's from a different perspective, because when you start listening, rather than writing that person off, but putting yourself in their shoes instead, we better understand that they might have something bugging them that could inform you.

I think in the politics of climate change we need that sort of perspective. First, the scale of change is so great and can’t be stop-start, you don't want it to be that one government comes in, makes capital investment, and the next government comes in and stops it. That would make it expensive, slow, and uncertain. So, you want to win five or six elections in a row. Therefore, you come to the realization that every place matters, and every person matters; we need a wide consensus, we need this to not be a divisive political issue.

That then leads you to a form of politics when you listen to people and ask people for help, rather than telling them what to do.


ML: We've got about a few months to go until COP 26 in Glasgow. How does it look? Are you optimistic? What's a good outcome?


ER: I’d have to say it's not looking great. We need to scale up ambition and action. It's not quite the same environment that I found in Paris in 2015. A lot of it is around international diplomacy and it's mixed up with the whole vaccine diplomacy. The justice issue around the developing world versus the developed and how we treat each other is connected to this, it's also connected to what's going on with China, the US, and Europe. There's a big geopolitical issue at play. It’s not optimal now.


ML: The way I see it, we don't have to have all answers to everything coming out of COP 26 in Glasgow, what we need to have is a ratchet that is significantly tighter and significantly more ambitious than we had in 2015 in Paris. All the countries pledging net zero and then delivering their nationally determined contributions to back that up. Isn't that enough to just kind of declare victory for Glasgow?


ER: I think you're right about the Paris Climate Agreement. It is a kind of legal text or structure for that ratcheting as much as anything else. It's a really good text. The people behind the Paris Agreements deserve huge credit. But there are certain that have advanced, unfortunately, like carbon in the atmosphere.

The understanding of the benefit of keeping below 1.5C and the urgency of that has advanced, there has been a significant step up in ambition in a variety of different countries. Others would argue that it's nowhere near sufficient. Greta Thunberg would argue, correctly, that’s it’s not ambitious enough. But it's certainly way more advanced than anything I can remember in terms of ambition, so that ratcheting is occurring.

But is it delivering the emissions reductions on the scale speed we need yet? I don't think so. I think African COP, on areas like land use, a whole variety of different areas where I'd be particularly interested in. Is there a sense of international cooperation and delivery of new protocols to really double down on what's in the Paris Climate Agreement? Not yet.

I'm just slightly nervous. It's not impossible. I think a lot of it would be around content, the likes of the European Union helping to create that environment, working with the UK presidency and the Italian presidency. So, it's not like it's not an impossible situation we're in. But it needs a fair bit of work. My sense is that the diplomatic environment is not where it needs to be. And that can and should change over the next three months. But it's not certain.