A wake-up call on energy: move to renewables needs to be accelerated

Tue, Apr 15, 2014, 01:00

Whether or not a wind energy export opportunity for Ireland materialises in the future may be in the lap of the gods, following the collapse of a proposed agreement with the British government. But there can be no doubt that wind and other renewable forms of energy will be elements of a global transition to a low-carbon economy no longer reliant on fossil fuels – and very heavily so, in Ireland’s case. That’s the main message from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in the latest volume of its Fifth Assessment Report . And it has not been lost on Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte. Metaphorically addressing his detractors, he asked on RTÉ radio yesterday, “How can people suggest that I can reduce the reliance on fossil fuels and switch to renewables without going to wind?”

Former president Mary Robinson, who heads a foundation working for climate justice, has rightly described the IPCC’s latest summary as a “wake-up call” to the international community and, indeed, every citizen of the world. Because what it says is that we’ll all have to make radical changes in how we produce and use energy, and in our own lifestyles, to avert the catastrophic consequences of global warming. Otherwise, it warns, the world is heading into previously uncharted territory, where average global surface temperatures could rise by as much as 4.8 degrees by 2100; more than double the internationally agreed target of capping the increase at 2 degrees.

The “clear message from science” – in the words of working group co-chair Ottmar Edenhofer – is that “we need to move away from business-as-usual ... to avoid dangerous interference with the climate system”. The scale of the challenge is enormous: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by between 40 and 70 per cent by 2050 and to “near-zero” by the end of this century. Options include drastically cutting emissions from electricity generation, improving the energy efficiency of buildings, industry and vehicles; eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels, estimated at $1.7 trillion worldwide, and boosting investment in wind, solar and nuclear energy.

Whatever about nuclear, which is not on the agenda here, Ireland must formulate a coherent, forward-looking energy policy very soon to reduce our heavy dependence on imported fossil fuels. Mr Rabbitte recently promised the Oireachtas Committee on the Environment that he would be publishing a Green Paper on energy policy within weeks and this would go to public consultation. Hopefully, the paper will generate a widespread public debate about what options we realistically have to meet our energy needs while, at the same time, addressing climate change. These options must include converting or replacing Ireland’s largest single carbon dioxide source – the ESB’s coal-fired power station at Moneypoint.