21 November, 2021

Good COP, bad COP

Globe hanging from the ceiling at COP26 in Glasgow

 It is three weeks since I boarded the ‘Rail to the CoP’ train in Brussels, and a week since I came back from Glasgow via London and a Eurostar to Brussels. For me, the optimism that I felt stepping off a train in Glasgow and seeing Greta Thunberg and her supporters has been replaced with that familiar feeling that progress is slow, and rarely moves at the pace required. On that first weekend I watched Patti Smith sing “The people have the power” from a Glasgow stage, but the reality is that Governments and Institutions have the real power, and rarely change direction in a hurry, even when it is badly needed. Former President Mary Robinson's emotional plea summed up how so many of us felt. 

My last memories of COP26 were on Saturday afternoon as I sat at the back of the huge Plenary Hall. A ‘stocktaking’ was about to start. To my left I could see Frans Timmermans the European Commission Vice-President working the room with some of his senior advisors close to hand. He was listening to voices from all around the world from the smaller island states to powerful players like Russia. To his right was John Kerry, US president Biden’s climate envoy. He too was touring the room, ignoring cameras, and listening carefully to the disparate voices and concerns that filtered through to him. This was geo-politics in action played out on a global stage. To even get access to the Plenary room was an achievement. Thousands of activists and campaigners were not allowed beyond the security fences, and even those who were restricted to certain rooms and spaces. Meanwhile the corporate branding was everywhere. From the Team Britain Formula E electric racing car to the ticker tape displays reminded you that firms like NatWest, Microsoft, Unilever, and Scottish Power were Principal Partners for the event. I noticed that #TogetherForOurPlanet was the official hashtag, but the campaigners outside the fences might disagree.

I have been to four COPS at this stage. COP15 in Copenhagen back in 2009 had us holding our breath for a ‘Hopenhagen’ moment, but it was not to be as Obama and China’s Wen Jinbao failed to bring the ambition we needed to the table. A year later at COP16 in Cancún I was head of a small delegation from Ireland and the talks process was on life support, but it survived and COP17 in Durban gave a new lease of life to the process that culminated in the Paris agreement at COP21 in Paris in 2015. Would the postponed COP26 in Glasgow be different? Philip Boucher-Hayes put his finger on it when he said that France had put years into preparing for the Paris COP. There was not much sign of that with the UK Government. The acid test was in India’s last-minute watering down of the core text on pushing for replacement of the phase-out of coal with a reference to ‘phase-down’. As my MEP colleagues for whom English is not their mother tongue said to me, “Is that even a word in English?” I am not sure if it is.

I some respects Nicola Sturgeon was a more compelling figure that the UK’s COP26 President Alok Sharma MP who ended up apologising for the watered-down text. Even though her stance on oil and gas is poor, she managed to convey the sense of urgency that is needed on the climate crisis. Speaking in Glasgow, a city which prospered on coal and steel, she knows that Scotland’s future prosperity will be built on wind and solar. She also understands that this change must be accelerated, not postponed. 

On the substance of the COP26 texts, Fossil Fuels, Loss and Damage, and Article 6 were the crunch issues

On fossil fuels, unabated coal, and inefficient subsidies for fossil fuels were at the heart of the debate. Although the end of the oil gas and coal age was signaled, the can continues to be kicked down the road, but the final text while clunky did indicate that fossil fuels days are numbered. It stated: “Accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable.”

'Loss and Damage' featured in discussions, but it was clear that the US did not want to come to a decision on this and open a Pandora’s Box of historical blame. The word reparations came up in the corridors, and in news commentary, but it will be hugely challenging to make the Western World face up to their obligations to compensate the Developing World for damage caused by a problem that was not of their making.

The Article 6 mechanisms, set out the functioning of international carbon markets to support further global cooperation on emission reductions. A lot of work was completed in Glasgow to clear up the accounting rules for carbon credits before and after the Paris Agreement and some loopholes that allowed double accounting were closed. The elephant in the room: the give-away of free carbon credits to the largest polluters was not up for discussion.

I was pleased that references to ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘Climate Justice’ made it into the Glasgow Agreement, and here’s the text on this: “Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including in forests, the ocean and the cryosphere, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and also noting the importance for some of the concept of ‘climate justice’, when taking action to address climate change”

From a personal perspective it was great to meet civil society representatives from countries such as Bangladesh. It was also good to to catch up with Green colleagues such as Elizabeth May who became a Canadian MP shortly after I met her in Copenhagen in 2009. I also met Ross Greer MSP, another green who has been a strongly-opinioned member of the Scottish Parliament since 2016. I was also proud of the work of Green Ministers such as our own Eamon Ryan who chaired some of the negotiations over the last week. He had a great team assisting him in Glasgow, and strong support from our Civil Service.It was good too to catch up with my colleagues from the Dáil; Brian Leddin TD and Minister Malcolm Noonan.

However, these fruitful meetings were over-shadowed by conservative politicians who made so many weak and strung-out promises: for instance President Bolsonaro of Brazil said he will halt deforestation by 2030. This is too little, too late. The 2020s need to be the decade of transformative change, and the heavy lifting must be achieved in the next few years. Sometimes you didn't know whether to laugh or cry at the slow progress. Tuvalu is a low-lying island state and their stand at COP feature a group of polar bears wearing life-jackets and a penguin with a noose around it's neck, not a bad depiction of the climate crisis.

The Glasgow COP signaled that the world’s economies will shift towards a cleaner future, but it did not provide the urgency or the money that is needed. It also exposed the deep divisions between those in the room, and those excluded from process. When the COP caravan moves on to Egypt next year, these cracks may become larger and the divisions more pronounced between wealthy and poorer countries.

05 August, 2021

What next for Dublin's Charlemont Street?


Looking down Dublin's Charlemont Street, pretty much everything you see was built within the last thirty years. We haven't quite cracked decent modern street design, have we?  I mean, where are the trees!

On the plus side we're at least building (or re-building) streets again. Back in the 1980s many felt that car parking was best placed in front of a new building, and the building itself should be set back from the road. In many parts of Ireland this is still the case and road traffic dominates. However, what struck me is that there isn't a shred of greenery in the image. Best practice these days means at least planting street trees along a road that is twenty metres wide. We could also do with some public seating, protected cycle lanes, attractive streetlamps, less advertising placards, and use decent materials rather than grey concrete for the footpaths and tarmacadam for the roads. and that's only for starters. 

The challenge is that no-one sat down and designed this street. Well, actually Sir Patrick Abercrombie did, back in the early years of the twentieth century, but that's another story. Looking at what you see here, architects designed the buildings on either side, and engineers provided (and designed) the carriageway in between. I doubt that Dublin City Council's urban planners or landscaping staff were even shown the drawings. That is why we need a Head of Urban Design or Public Realm at Assistant Chief Executive level within Dublin City Council. The Chief Executive Owen Keegan should create this post and ensure someone with the ability to knock heads together gets the job. 

What brought me into politics thirty years ago was that the then Dublin Corporation felt that 'sorting out the traffic' was the only game in town. By traffic they meant cars, and they were happy to demolish chunks of the city to make it easier to drive from the suburbs to the city and back every day. When I was first elected as a councillor in 1991 one of my first acts was to seek support from dropping many of these ill-conceived road proposals from our plans and promote light rail instead. As it happens at the end of the view in this photo there used to be another street: 'Charlotte Street', and it was built over by a developer. Dublin Corporation even held a Street Closing Inquiry in the early 1990s, where I presented evidence that the Street should be kept, rather than built on, but my plea fell on deaf ears. 

Problems remain, though in recent years senior Council staff understand that streets aren't just for traffic, they also have a social and commercial function. Over the years we've moved the debate on from providing from cars to facilitating public transport with the introduction of Quality Bus Corridors in the late 1990s. Since then, initially reluctantly, but now with enthusiasm Dublin City Council is rolling out walking and cycling infrastructure. Even now there’s too much emphasis on plastic bollards, rather than on using greenery or planters to separate cyclists from cars. New concerns and ideas about greening our cities, and sustainable urban drainage demand a co-ordinated and design-led approach. In the past, and in some quarters today trees are seen as at best and afterthought, and at worst a problem, this must change. I'm glad to see that the City Council has appointed an arboricultural, or Street Tree Officer. Different players must work together in an inter-disciplinary approach to 'co-create' quality spaces and places. Communities also need to be at the centre of the process, and not just involved through a public submission period after the plans have been drawn up.

We need to adopt a 'whole streets' approach to ensure everyone is focused on improving the public realm: from public lighting engineers to the Parks Department. Far too different staff sit in separate silos and communicate by long-distance semaphore! Within Dublin City Council I struggled to ensure the posts of Dublin City Planning Officer, and City Engineer were filled after long vacancies. We also have a City Architect. We now need to complement these roles with a head of Urban Design. That person could ensure that all these civic officials work together to up the quality of our public realm. Simple tasks, like ensuring that road surfaces are reinstated road works might come under their responsibility. As it happens, we do have a Public Realm Strategy, but it can be hard to know who ensures that all staff are focused on delivering it. Just look at the streetlights in this photo. No-one in the Council woke up some morning and said I am going to give Charlemnt Street the best new street lighting that we can design! The BusConnects project has the potential to dramatically improved the public realm. Some of the draft proposals are good, but others fall far short of what is required. Let's hope that the plans that go to Bord Pleanála are of a high standard. If we try and 'bolt-on' bus lanes by widening streets and maintaining the same level of car-use we will be on a hiding to nothing.

Streets aren't just for traffic, they must provide for social interaction and commercial activity, and this requires a joined-up approach by developers, engineers, and all other disciplines to ensure the public realm is improved. Back in 2010 when I was a Minister of State with responsibility for planning and sustainable transport, I kicked off a process that led to the publication of an Irish Design Manual for Urban Streets and Roads (DMURS). It helps the different players to design a decent street, but it doesn't automatically ensure that good design is achieved. We need to tackle this, from providing decent street signs to getting rid of crappy randomly placed utility boxes that were put in place with the Cross-City Luas.

At this stage in Ireland, we need clearer guidance. Transport for London have a 'Streets Toolkit' which is helpful, and they've also produced good information on taking a 'Healthy Streets' Approach. DMURS helps, but more detailed street guidance is now required.  Often councillors get blamed for poor planning decisions and poor streets. To a certain extent that is a fair criticism, but I would say that the level of responsibility, funding and devolved powers in Irish local government is amongst the worst in Europe. It is therefore hard for councillors to make a difference. (Believe me, I've tried!) Looking ahead we need to devolve more powers to our Councils, put in place an elected Mayor for greater Dublin, and ensure a senior official is responsible for quality streets and providing and managing the decent public realm.

What next for Charlemont Street? That's up to Dublin City Council. My work is focused on European issues, and while I do spend time on policy documents such as a Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy where I'm prioritising active travel (walking and cycling) and public transport, the EU doesn't micro-manage things at a national or local level. Really it boils down to local councillors and officials sitting down to get things right. Personally, I'd reduce the street back to two rather than three lanes of motorised traffic, and add segregated cycle lanes, as well as wider footpaths. I'd narrow the width of these lanes to around three metres, as wide lanes encourage speeding. I'd put in semi-mature street trees with wide tree pits that allow for planting and storm water drainage. I'd also put in attractive street lighting, and some quality street benches or seating where neighbours or visitors could sit down and have a chat. All of this can be done, it simply requires the political will.


16 March, 2021

Road Safety: what's happening in Europe?

Road safety was back on the agenda today in the European parliament’s Transportation Committee. Here’s what I had to say to Matthew Baldwin who has responsibility for Road safety within the European Commission: Mr. Baldwin, many thanks for coming to speak to us today about this very important issue. 

Behind the road safety statistics lie human tragedies. Last Saturday, a young schoolboy David McHale died in a crash in the West of Ireland. Every week, 500 people die on EU roads. We are not meeting our targets, our Sustainable Development 2030 Goals. We need to progressively ramp up our ambition over time and get to Vision Zero sooner. I therefore have a number of questions: 

 Firstly, will the Commission commit to publishing a strategy on safe active mobility that puts the safety of vulnerable road users first? The revision (Directive (EU) 2019/1936) of the Directive on Road Infrastructure Safety management Directive 2008/96/EC was welcome, but it covers rural roads, not urban roads. 
If our urban roads were a factory floor, it would be shut down on health and safety grounds. We must up our game. Can we ensure urban roads are assessed for their safety, particularly for the most vulnerable? Can we make them safe and attractive for pedestrians, and indeed microbility? Covid-19 saw a drop in car journeys, and a boom in active mobility, and a drop in road accidents. We need to capitalise on these changes, because not only do we help protect road users, we reduce emissions and pollution, reduce congestion and its negative economic effects, and we promote the health of citizens. All such policy areas should feed into such a strategy. 

 Secondly, we urgently need to address speeding. Here in Brussels for example we are seeing the rollout of a 30km/h city-wide speed limit, average speeds are down which is good news, and countless studies have shown the effectiveness of such a strategy in reducing road deaths and injuries. The WHO states that for car occupants in a crash with an impact speed of 80 km/h, the likelihood of death is 20 times what it would have been at an impact speed of 30 km. Will the Commission therefore come forward with a recommendation on speed that in line with a Safe System approach? This could promote 40 km/h, not 50 km/h on radial routes, 30km/h speed limit on other urban roads. We should also consider lower speed limits lower on local roads where children play. For rural roads, 70km/h could similarly help reduce the number of accidents. On this point, the Commission should explore tying EU funding to the development and implementation of Sustainable Urban Mobility plans, and rural mobility plans. In both instances, road safety and the protection of vulnerable road users should be central to the plans.

 Finally, when it comes to enforcement, there is a need to recognise driving disqualifications, penalty points systems across different Member States, and I would urge the Commission to include this in its revision of the cross-border enforcement directive. Penalty Points for speeding or drunk driving penalty points should not magically disappear when the driver crosses an international border.

In reply Matthew Baldwin said the following:

"Mr Cuffe you ask important questions. I'm not sure I can answer them all. Will we produce a strategy on safe and active mobility? I hear you loud and clear. We will be addressing that issue again in the urban mobility package, which is coming out later this year. 

"You are right to say there is only a rule that requires Member States to look at rural roads; they may take urban issues into account, and for the first time, thanks to the pressure from a number of groups, vulnerable users’ needs must be taken into account.

"You’re right also to draw attention to the overall impact of active mobility in terms of the health of our citizens and the calls for sustainability. On 30 km per hour speed limits, I hear you loud and clear. You are right, speed levels are down in Brussels by 9% over the first couple of months. And the idea you have of tying European funding to sustainable and rural mobility plans is an interesting one. We need to protect the most vulnerable people on our roads. And this is something again we could look at in our urban mobility package later this year."

I was pleased with his replies, but we must do more. I intend working with the World Health Organisation and European Transport Safety Council and others to push for progress on making our roads and streets not just safer, but much more inviting to all, particularly the most vulnerable.

04 March, 2021

Some thoughts on a Biden Presidency


On January 20th, a new dawn broke over America, taking it out of 4 long years of darkness brought about by the frenzied and belligerent Trump Administration. Many across the US and indeed quite a few people here in Europe breathed a sigh of relief when President Joe Biden was sworn into office. The grownups were finally back in the room, and they brought the scientists back with them.
Many of the policies and actions of the Trump White House were met with dismay. The suggestions of drinking bleach as a cure-all to COVID_19. The images of tiny unaccompanied children sitting before judges in immigration courts. The violence and use of force deployed against BLM supporters for peacefully protesting. The depravity of the Capital riot seemingly encouraged and applauded by the then President Trump. The lowering of environmental standards such as revoking limits on dangerous methane emissions during oil and gas drilling operations that were ushered into legislation alongside almost gleeful declarations that climate change was a hoax. President Biden now has an opportunity to not only roll back on the damage wrought by Trump but to deliver on his own campaign slogan - Build Back Better.

Given the ticking clock on climate change - environmental policy is as good as any place to start. On day one, President Biden signed the executive order to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement, which will come into effect at the end of January. The internationally binding treaty, which Trump left the day before the 2020 US election commits countries to keep global warming well below 2°C. Re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement is a welcome move, and it brings the United States commitments in line with 190 other countries. It also marks the first steps on the road to delivering the Biden Administration’s $2 trillion climate and environment package.
The Biden climate plan, like the EU Green Deal, is undoubtedly ambitious but urgently necessary. It matches the EU goals of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 by creating a series of overarching climate change tackling polices. It aims to end fossil fuel emissions from US power plants by 2035. Much like our own EU renovation wave- an initiative I led on in the European Parliament, the Biden climate plan will upgrade and retrofit 4 million buildings and homes over the next four years to increase energy efficiency. The Biden climate plan can create millions of new jobs in energy, transport and construction through the upgrading of infrastructure and moving toward public transportation in larger more urban areas- something we are also trying to do in the EU.
It certainly seems that President Biden and Vice President Harris get the need for urgent climate action and understand how it affects people’s daily lives. Appointing an internationally recognised and experienced climate team - including former Obama Secretary of State John Kerry inspires confidence. The idea of a just transition for poorer communities is also at the heart of this new policy approach. Something alien to the previous administration. Disadvantaged communities are expected to receive some 40% of the overall benefits of the Biden climate plan through more affordable and sustainable housing, training and retraining the workforce, and tackling air and water pollution. As is the case in Europe, to tackle the climate emergency successfully, we must leave no one behind and ensure, as a priority, that the resources are there to help the most vulnerable.
The comparisons between both the EU’s and the US’s new scientific approach to climate change are there for a reason. Ireland and the EU have always had strong ties with the US. Being able to work in tandem on tackling the climate emergency will only strengthen the transatlantic partnership. It will allow us to support and enable progressive and sustainable targets while also being able to call each other out if our policy areas and legislation are not hitting agreed climate goals.
We won’t see change overnight. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Even the process of re-joining the Paris Agreement takes some time. And while the Biden climate plan doesn’t go quite as far as the Green New Deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and backed by Bernie Sanders in 2019 which called for zero carbon emissions by 2030-it is a radical improvement on the last lot! It’s a plan the EU can work with.