Looking back on our Earth Day Conference 2024

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This year, Friends of the Earth is celebrating its 50th anniversary, with this event as well as the education day event on April 27th being an integral part of this.

Did you miss attending the event but want to learn about the pertinent discussions of the day? Or did you attend the event but want to recount the key discussions we had? We hope this comprehensive report on the Earth Day Conference will help you with this! We're also sharing some key resources pertaining to the conference. 


Here’s a video capturing some snippets from the day:

From a farmer poignantly sharing his story of the often-overlooked struggles of transitioning to more sustainable dairy farming, and those working in the climate justice space echoing related struggles of working in an extractive system, to citizens challenging political parties on their climate action plans, the rousing discussions we had at our Earth Day Conference on April 22nd, were distinctive, evocative—and importantly, powerful. 

Together, we not only brainstormed and analysed how Ireland can meet its carbon budgets, we also put tough questions to politicians, made our election demands known, as well as heard powerful stories from those at the frontlines of working towards climate justice. A prominent sentiment that emerged throughout the conversations was also the need for a systems change, and a revolutionary one at that, to meaningfully address the climate crisis. 

The conference (programme here) brought together voices from across affected communities, civil society, political parties, academia, and policy experts. Not only did we put our demands to the Government to keep within the emissions limits adopted by the Dáil fast enough and fairly enough, we also shared stories of solidarity, resilience, strength, hope—and equally, vulnerability, too. ‘Ireland 2030: Faster and Fairer Climate Action’ formed the key focus of the conference. We also launched our election toolkit and our new climate mythbuster to help our supporters when they are out canvassing the canvassers. 


Our election toolkit and climate mythbuster can be accessed here. 

Oisín Coghlan, our CEO, kicked off the conference with a speech that chronicled Friends of the Earth’s work and journey over the past half a century, whilst also reminding us of the crucial challenges we face over the next five years in complying with the second carbon budget. This was also the central question we investigated at the conference—how do we reduce our polluting emissions quickly enough to keep within the limits adopted by the Dáil and fairly enough to leave no one behind? He reminded us of the people power needed to bridge the disconnect between what the Government should be doing to combat climate change–based on evidence and science–and what they are doing, and how such collective action is pivotal to tip the balance of power in favour of fast and fair climate action. 

Up next was Hannah Daly, Professor in Sustainable Energy and Energy Systems Modelling at University College Cork, who took us through the five major measures she has identified that would help Ireland rapidly decarbonise to meet our 2030 emission reductions target, whilst also warning us of the dangers of being distracted by false solutions.  Wind, solar and grid; electrification of transport; reduction of car use; clean heat; as well as decarbonisation of industry are the measures she identified as needed to take us 90% of the way to our 2030 objective.


Unless there is urgent course correction, we will miss these carbon budgets…the nature of the challenge is really unprecedented, yet we are not treating it like an emergency...We have the solutions we need but we have to address the sources of inertia.


See a summary of the research  and a copy of the slide deck Hannah presented here.

Our conference also marked the unveiling of new and important research conducted by Ireland Thinks for Friends of the Earth, which found that the majority of people in Ireland remain very concerned about climate change and are solidly supportive of government action to cut polluting emissions. Dr Kevin Cunnningham, Lecturer in TU Dublin and MD of Ireland Thinks, presented these findings, which are the results from a poll of attitudes to climate change and climate policies in Ireland.


An important takeaway from this research is that there is no sign of a significant decline in public support for climate action, let alone a groundswell of pushback or backlash, contrary to some political and media narratives. The research also found climate change being ranked fifth among the issues facing the country, ahead of a list of issues bunched together, including crime, the economy, poverty and Gaza. Notably, 43% said that the “the Government is not doing enough, fast enough, to cut Ireland's pollution”—illuminating the need for the Government to double down on climate action.


The full Ireland Thinks report can be read here.

Following in the footsteps of this pertinent discussion was our first panel discussion of the day titled, ‘Political leadership for faster and fairer climate action’, which had representatives from seven Irish political parties - who voted both for the 2021 climate law, and in 2022 to adopt the binding limits on national emissions - and was chaired by Irish Times writer and duty editor, Hugh Linehan. This panel presented a significant opportunity to challenge political parties on the climate action plans needed to keep within the emissions limits adopted by the Dáil. 

Speaking on behalf of their parties were Senator Lynn Boylan (Sinn Féin), Jennifer Whitmore TD (Social Democrats), Senator Timmy Dooley (Fianna Fáil), Paul Murphy TD (People Before Profit), Ivana Bacik TD (Labour), Richard Bruton TD (Fine Gael) and Patrick Costello (Green Party). Notably, that the farming community needs support in making a just transition was a dominant theme that emerged during this panel, which affirms the poll results which found that support for concrete measures to help farmers transition to a more sustainable model of agriculture is high. For instance, 50% think we should be “supporting farmers to diversify away from beef and dairy, two of the most polluting forms of agriculture”.


The discussions we had were insightful and wide-ranging. Jennifer Whitmore TD (Social Democrats) made a pertinent observation that contrary to how it appears, many people are not in fact anti-climate action— they just feel really left behind by our economic system.

It’s because this system has not been providing for people, not providing things like housing, that people get disaffected. Environment needs to be threaded through everything we do, we can’t look at it on its own, we need to look at the economic and political system and how we look after people and when we do that the environmental benefits will fall into place.

Our current economic system is at the root of the climate crisis and climate change is just a symptom of this economic system, said Jennifer. “Our economic model is not compatible with a healthy planet,” she said. 

Senator Timmy Dooley (Fianna Fáil) drew attention to how the farming community needs support to make changes to a more sustainable farming model.

Farmers get climate change more than ever this year, they get it in relation to flooding but they need support to make the changes.

Paul Murphy TD (People Before Profit) echoed similar sentiments when he said,

The majority of people are in favour of paying farmers to farm in a sustainable way. Farmers have been paid and incentivised to farm in a polluting way. We should pay and incentivize small farmers to engage in regenerative agriculture and farm in a sustainable way. Climate action needs to make people’s lives easier and better, not harder. We have an emergency and we need to act like it’s an emergency.

He also illuminated the need for system change in combating climate change, adding that “we need a very radical shift to avoid catastrophe”, whilst also speaking about his party’s Bill to ban advertising of fossil fuels, and fossil fuelled vehicles.

We need significant state intervention to deliver climate action and public services, in housing and in public transport, said Ivana Bacik TD (Labour).

Labour has proposed a nine euro climate ticket to give people unlimited public transport journeys for a set fee per month. That is a core premise of a just transition, we need to bring people with us and ensure that people have better lives.

Richard Bruton TD (Fine Gael) said,

There is a cross government responsibility for climate action. We can’t slink back and say that it’s Eamon Ryan’s idea or Eamon Ryan’s responsibility.

People want to see fairness in climate action and that’s not the case at the moment, said Senator Lynn Boylan (Sinn Féin).

Sinn Féin’s policy on retrofitting is in an area-based, tiered system so that more people would qualify for fully paid grants while those earning over €100,000 would not get grants but could still access low cost loans. Also the same with solar grants, where your income is taken into account.

She also shed light on how the agriculture debate is always framed as putting environmentalists and farmers into silos, and the need to talk about it in a more intelligent way. “If we don’t reduce carbon emissions and while also reducing poverty at the same time, then we are failing society; we must bring fairness to policies,” she said.

Finally, Patrick Costello (Green Party) said there are “very real positives and benefits to most people for investing in the green transition”.

Huge numbers of people die due to air pollution every year; if we have better public transport, if we stop burning coal and turf, we can reduce those deaths….We need to have a conversation with farmers, we need to engage with farmers. The status quo cannot continue, we need to have a conversation about how we make change happen.

At Friends of the Earth, we campaign and build movement power to bring about the system change needed for a just world where people and nature thrive. To bring about this system change, we need to raise tough questions to our politicians—those who have the power to deliver on the changes we seek—and hold them accountable to their promises. This panel, as well as the subsequent address by Minister Eamon Ryan and the Q&A sessions that followed both these critical junctures of the conference, presented a unique opportunity to do this.


Read our press release on this panel here. 

After a quick coffee break, we kicked off our ‘Speaking up for faster fairer climate action’ panel, which had prominent members of Irish civil society speaking up passionately on the topics of climate justice and intersectionality. Chaired by journalist and broadcaster Ella McSweeney, this panel featured Carol-Anne O’Brien of BOLD Climate Action, Vanessa Conroy of  Feminist Communities for Climate Justice, Donal Sheehan of BRIDE Farming Project, Sean McCabe, Climate Justice Officer of Bohemian FC, as well as Friends of the Earth’s own Senior Climate Campaign Coordinator, Sorcha Tunney. 


Donal, a dairy farmer and one of the drivers of the innovative BRIDE (Biodiversity Regeneration In a Dairying Environment) Project - which rewards farmers for delivering improvements in biodiversity, carbon sequestering, and improving water quality - gave a rundown of his journey towards a more sustainable way of dairy farming. He spoke at length about the production-oriented focus in agriculture that often  overlooks environmental and social impacts.

Donal fought back tears as he recounted the struggles of making this transition to a more sustainable model. Even as farmers like him try their best to do the right thing for the environment - and people at large - they find themselves bogged down with difficulties owing to the extractive system that they’re working in. They struggle to compete in a system that also doesn’t support them in making this important transition—again, despite demonstrable public support in favour of doing so.

Reflecting on Donal’s evocative testimony, Sean said,

We have an extractive system that’s killing us and unless we seriously think about who owns what we have, then we are in big trouble…unless we can revise entirely how our societies operate and go back…to a time when people realised their own power and use that power to uplift everyone - an economic system that nurture people and doesn't push them to the brink of existence…
What we are doing now is, we are spinning in circles—we are kind of retrofitting climate action onto a really broken system rather than questioning what agency exists within each of our communities to do it for ourselves,” he averred, with the crowd welcoming this with a huge round of applause.
We should be led by the inherent knowledge that exists within our communities and everything else should fall into place around that, including funding, including policy…

PXL_20240422_111312927.MPVanessa talked about climate change being a compounder and exacerbator of existing inequalities, as well as how our current policy approach puts the onus on the individual rather than encouraging systemic change. A redistribution of power is also key, she pointed out, as this is important as we take climate action in a society where inequalities are only getting worse.

We have a policy (system) that is trying to ignore the fact that there are some people who are not going to be able to afford…(the changes/climate action needed to combat climate change) - they are treated rather homogeneously in that everybody will be able to make these changes, and that as long as everybody makes these changes, then we’ll hit our targets…Our existing climate policy approach is not equality-proofed, it’s not poverty-proofed and it’s not gender-proofed.

Carol-Anne from BOLD Climate Action, a collaborative initiative led by and for older people over the age of 60, that empowers older people to take climate action, instilled hope by reminding us of how far we have come as a society, and that importantly, revolutionary change is indeed possible. 

The kind of society that existed when I was a teenager, where boys from disadvantaged areas were sent off to reform schools, where young women who got pregnant were sent to Magdalene laundries, where books were banned, gay men were criminalised—that was an incredibly powerful set of institutions that I had to grow up in.We were able to change that, we were able to create movements and groups that actually fought and eliminated many of those oppressive aspects of society. So, I feel people of my age, those born in 1952… - we have seen incredible change, so we know that incredible change is possible.

This is exactly the kind of hope and resilience that we need in the climate movement to bring about the scale of change that is needed to combat the existential crisis facing us. 


After lunch, Eamon Ryan TD, Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, delivered a keynote speech on “Our Energy Future”. “Our energy future has to be zero carbon…we have to dramatically and radically decarbonaise and our energy system is central to that,” he said. Speaking in the context of data centres, he said, “I’ve been demanding the government that the standards are set so that no development is in breach of our climate law.”


Oisín, our CEO, then raised questions from the audience with the Minister on the topics of the ‘Swiss Grannies’ ECHR case, concerns regarding LNG, as well as the support needed for farmers in making the transition to more sustainable practices, drawing on Donal’s testimony.


Watch a short video clip that captures a part of the Q&A session here:

This was followed by the last panel discussion of the day, ‘Our Energy Future’. Representatives of the renewables industry and environmental NGOs discussed how the Government can meet the twin challenges of renewables (and grid) rollout  and biodiversity protection , as well as the benefits of FoE’s associated project which has focused on inclusive stakeholder dialogues on these issues. This panel, chaired by Karen Ciesielski, CEO of the Irish Environmental Network, had Liam Innis from Renewables Grid Initiative; Justin Moran of Wind Energy Ireland; Robert Fennelly of Eirgrid; Elaine McGoff of An Taisce; Oonagh Duggan of Birdwatch; as well as our Head of Policy Change, Jerry Mac Evilly. 


Jerry underscored the urgency of our collective understanding that energy transformation is not a mere technical exercise for economic development.

It's a matter that concerns all of us, as Donal, Vanessa, and Sean highlighted in the previous panel. We need changes that significantly enhance our quality of life and a community cooperative approach. This is the essence of the energy transformation, and it needs to happen now.

Whilst there is a huge degree of public support for climate action, there’s also a lot of disinformation and risk of misunderstanding, Jerry pointed out.

The government has to better resource or fully resource public communications regarding the energy transformation. We need things like better state (led) public information campaigns on the climate and biodiversity crises and also some readily accessible, understandable information on what really means when [renewable and grid infrastructure are] being rolled out, where it's being rolled out—and also for offshore renewables as well. Now, I should hasten to add, this is being done already, but it's about being done more systematically, nationally, and for the long term.

Oonagh stressed the importance of proper planning and implementation of the laws that are already in place.

So we have to see action, we have to see more renewables going into the ground and at scale. But my word, we really, really need to be making sure that we are putting renewables in the right places so that we minimize the impacts to seabirds and other wildlife - now that’s in the offshore space, but also in the onshore space, or terrestrial.

Oonagh also drew attention to the European Nature Restoration Law.

The [European] Nature Restoration Law is in a coffin ready to be buried at this stage - we always have to have hope but it’s in such a precarious position now. It’s important that Ireland brings in our own Nature Restoration Law.


Elaine pointed out the elephant in the room is the Planning Bill. She said,

It [The Planning Bill] has been widely condemned,  it will lead to years and years of litigation, and what is being proposed by the Government is not compliant with the Aarhus convention...We need an independent agency to deliver public information like fact sheets on the risks of renewable energy.

Justin emphasised the need for political leadership right across all political parties and from top to bottom, especially owing to the disconnect between what politicians say nationally and what they do locally. He also highlighted the importance of demanding action on renewables when politicians call to peoples’ homes around the elections. He also shed light on how disinformation about wind farms and communities not being fully aware of all the aspects around it is a real challenge. 


Robert spoke of how EirGrid is “acting with urgency and sincerity on the biodiversity emergency, on our assets and also in our communities”.

... The places that all of us have seen the most tangible, palpable change in response to biodiversity emergencies are in the towns and villages around Ireland, and that gives us all a lot of hope. So, we have what we call a Community Benefit Fund… In 2022, we changed our Community Benefit Fund, and one third of all of our funding goes towards biodiversity projects.

Liam emphasised the need for a people-powered revolution to drive energy transformation and the importance of cross-sectoral collaborations in which businesses, civil society, and the government work together. He also talked about how moving to more open data is critical to knowing where bird species and sensitive habitats are.

We need more data to be publicly available. It’s possible to design offshore wind turbines that not only reduces negative impacts but helps to restore nature.

The day ended on a great note with Oisín bringing together some of the key strands that stood out during the day. One was how the productionist, consumerist and endless growth mindset that late capitalism encourages is at odds with the kind of sustainability we need to see.

You can't have infinite growth on a finite planet. And I think some of the discussions today really, really illustrated that. It's something for us to take away in Friends of the Earth, as we develop our campaigning beyond the next election cycle. 

The other core strand that stood out, Oisín said, was the need for an interventionist and active state that is helping people make the transition.

And while we need that state intervention, it can’t mean to have a top-down solution—it needs to be empowering communities that are leading the way…they must be empowering people to drive the changes themselves.

The disconnect between the vision we have and the kind of economic logic that's driving us at the moment is another key strand, said Oisin. 

Reflecting on the findings of the poll Friends of the Earth facilitated, Oisin raised the question of whether the number of people in favour of climate action are strong enough to terrify the politicians into taking action.

The answer to that is we must not be a silent majority - we must be vocal and vibrant and vigorous champions for the transition that we need and that is the doorstep challenge that we are laying before you at Friends of the Earth now - these politicians are going to come to your doorsteps in the next few weeks… We have to grasp that moment. We have leaflets you can give them, but we must put it up to them to champion faster and fairer climate action.

He also emphasised the importance of conversations - even the awkward ones with our friends, colleagues and neighbours about climate.  

Oisín ended the conference by reading out loud the following excerpt on hope and fellowship from US writer David Roberts’ account on climate action, which was penned around 10 years ago.

Remember, there is no “too late” here, no “game over” — it will be a tragedy to shoot past 2 degrees to 3, but 4 is worse than 3, and 5 is worse than 4. Being unprepared for any of those will be much worse than being prepared. The future always forks; there are always better and worse paths ahead. There’s always a difference to be made.
When we ask for hope, then, I think we’re just asking for fellowship. The weight of climate change, like any weight, is easier to bear with others. And if there’s anything I’ve learned in these last 10 years, it’s that there are many, many others. They are out there, men and women of extraordinary imagination, courage, and perseverance, pouring themselves into this fight for a better future.
You are not alone. And as long as you are not alone, there is always hope.

As we head into the electoral cycle that will determine local, European and national mandates for the five years that coincide with the second carbon budget period, we hope these conversations from the conference will serve as a guide in helping you urge politicians to make climate action top of their agenda. We must be vocal, vibrant and vigorous champions for fast and fair climate action that leaves no one behind!