New minister for climate change has no time to waste

An scheme to incentivise renewable sources of heating should be the priority

Climate change is not high on the public agenda despite the impacts, such as increases in extreme weather and flooding.

Climate change is not high on the public agenda despite the impacts, such as increases in extreme weather and flooding.

 

For the first time, Ireland now has a Minister with responsibility for climate change.

The appointment of Denis Naughten is an important statement of intent by the new Government. Addressing climate change will require substantial adjustments for society, the economy and the energy system.

The Minister will have a key role in facilitating and enabling these changes. Success will require a set of coherent short-term, medium-term and long-term actions. The renewable heat incentive scheme needs to be implemented with urgency. This scheme, which would encourage industry, communities and public and commercial bodies to switch to renewable heat, is under development but needs to be delivered quickly. The time window to 2020 is closing. The key options available for renewable heat are biogas and solid biomass.

The reason we need this now is that Ireland is not on track to meet our targets for 2020 for greenhouse gas emissions reduction or renewable energy.

We are legally obliged under EU legislation to meet these targets. Heating has been largely neglected to date in public and policy discussions. There is a lot more focus on how we can produce electricity, but addressing heating will contribute to meeting both these targets. Because of how these targets are established, wind, solar photovoltaic electricity and the future of our peat and coal power stations contribute nothing to our emissions reduction target. Renewable heat does contribute and requires a strong focus in the short term.

Silo-based approach

A medium-term recommendation is to change how we develop and implement climate policy. We need to move from a departmental silo-based approach towards a whole of Government approach. It is no longer appropriate, for example, that the Department of Transport is responsible for transport fuels in isolation, or that the Department of Agriculture has responsibility for agrifood in isolation. The E U is currently deciding how the greenhouse gas emissions targets in the period to 2030 will be distributed to member states. These negotiations will be crucial as the targets will be mandatory.

It has been very encouraging over the past two years to witness the level of interdepartmental engagement by the civil servants.

The move from a silo-based to a whole of Government climate policy is definitely under way, although not without barriers along the way. Accelerating this process should be another key focus of action. The Minister must also provide political leadership. Climate change is not high on the public agenda despite the impacts, such as increases in extreme weather and flooding. This lack of leadership is most recently apparent from the reports on the formation of government. The timing of the Minister’s appointment is important in terms of Ireland’s recent policy decisions. In December we agreed as a country the first climate legislation – the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. In the same month we saw the publication of the new White Paper on energy, which was named deliberately to reflect the clear policy signal Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future. These documents provide a strong policy foundation on which the Minister can now act.

Global efforts

The timing of the appointment is also important in terms of the wider global efforts to address climate change. Ireland was one of the 195 countries who contributed to the Paris agreement on climate change last December and one of the 176 countries who signed the agreement in New York last month.

The challenges set forth in the Paris agreement are not trivial and will require a level of international co-ordination and collaboration unseen in the history of this planet.

While we have now agreed on the goal, one of the key challenges is working out can we achieve the agreed target (ie limiting climate change to well below 2 degrees) and if so, how?

Brian Ó Gallachóir is professor of energy policy and modelling at University College Cork’s Environmental Research Institute

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