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Why do we leave immigration out of the Climate Debate?

Ireland’s nearest neighbour, the United Kingdom, produces many millions more tonnes of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gasses every year than Ireland does, despite not being much more than twice our size in terms of land mass. The reason for that is not hard to understand: The UK has close to 70 million inhabitants. The 26 counties of the Republic, by contrast, have close to 5 million inhabitants.

The larger a population is, the more pollution and carbon emissions it will produce. This is because individuals consume energy, goods, food, and services which require the expenditure of energy to create. In many cases, the simple act of having a shower in the morning requires the burning of fossil fuels, either in your own home, or a power station, to heat the water. The more people you have, the more carbon you will produce.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that in Ireland, we will talk about every element of the economy and society, in terms of reducing emissions, but have put a steel ring preventing any discussion at all around the likely largest single driver of emissions increases in Ireland over the next thirty years: Immigration.

Remember: According to the Central Statistics Office, Ireland’s population is on course to reach 6.7 million people by the year 2051. According to their projections, about 900,000 of that increase will come from natural population growth (ie, more births than deaths). But about 1 million of that increase will come from net migration (more people immigrating to Ireland than emigrating).

More people, of course, means more demand for goods. We will eat more food, meaning that more food will have to be grown in Ireland, or imported from around the world, usually at the cost of carbon emissions. We will consume more electricity. We will require more housing. And more hot water. We will increase our demand for air travel, and data centres, and just about everything else which is a boogeyman of the Government’s Green Movement.

What’s more, it is not as simple as believing that migration is carbon neutral – in other words, to claim that immigration is irrelevant because a person will use about the same amount of energy anywhere in the world. Because that is not true.

For example, somebody who moves to Ireland from a poor country in search of a better life will almost always do so because they can attain a higher income in Ireland than they can in their country of origin. In the extreme example, a person who subsides on a few dollars a day in the world’s poorest countries is unlikely to consume anywhere near the level of processed foods, or buy the amount of clothes, or use as much electricity or hot water, as they would in Ireland, on a relatively higher income. Most immigrants, historically, move to increase their wealth, and, in turn, their consumption.

Proof of this is that in 2018, Malawi produced 0.9 metric tonnes of CO2 per person. Ireland produced 7.6 metric tonnes per person. Where you are in the world is a significant predictor of how you will impact the environment. On balance, moving an extra million people to Ireland will not only increase total Irish emissions – it will also result in those million people producing more emissions than if they had stayed where they were.

In so far as your correspondent can tell, Irish climate policy basically takes no account of immigration as a factor for rising emissions whatsoever, even though population is the single biggest driver of environmental damage. This is extraordinary, because it is the one thing that we can do to keep emissions under control which has limited economic impact.

If you want Ireland to reduce its CO2 emissions, it becomes much harder to do that while planning to import a million heads of additional population. Chances are, the marginal offsets you do gain from limiting the national herd, or buying electric busses, or whatever, will be cancelled out by the increased demand for energy by 2050.

None of this, by the way, is an argument for or against immigration. It is simply to state, in the context of our national discussion around Climate Change, that one of the major factors driving the future increase in Irish emissions is being left out of the conversation altogether. And we know why that is, of course: It’s because in their hearts, many of our leaders and thought leaders have internalised the notion that you cannot express any scepticism about immigration at all without being in some way racist. And so we live in a strange country where we project a million people will come to live here from overseas over the next 30 years, but almost nobody talks about the likely impact of that on housing, the environment, demand for hospital beds and school places, or anything else. In almost every other western democracy, this issue is at the heart of political debate, and talked about, for the most part, sensibly.

Not here, though. It’s extraordinary.

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