Crazy maths makes nonsense of Irish climate change policy

Subsidy on peat generation exceeds wages of those it employs as our emissions soar

Bord na Mona land at Mountlucas Wind farm in Co Offaly. Photograph: Dara MacDonaill/The Irish Times

Bord na Mona land at Mountlucas Wind farm in Co Offaly. Photograph: Dara MacDonaill/The Irish Times

 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published figures two weeks ago for Irish greenhouse gas emissions, together with their projections for the next decade. These figures made pretty depressing reading.

Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions are steadily rising, and the EPA projects a continuous increase for most of the next decade. As a result, not only are we certain to miss our 2020 goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we are also more likely to miss our 2030 target. Our 2050 commitment under the Paris agreement – to largely decarbonise the economy – is also in serious jeopardy unless the situation is rapidly redressed.

Each year, the agency publishes two sets of projections – one on the basis of existing policies and another taking account of “additional measures” that have been agreed during the previous year, but are not yet implemented. It was very striking that the additional measures announced last year, which the EPA numbers took into account, actually made things worse.

This is the first time that policy in a particular year has actually added to the problem of global warming rather than making a positive, though limited, contribution to reducing emissions. It should be noted, however, that the EPA’s projections do not yet factor in any positive benefits from the National Development Plan.

The key factor behind this perverse turn in climate policy, identified in the EPA numbers, was the decision to continue subsidising peat-fired electricity generation stations through to 2030. Peat is the most damaging fuel in terms of global warming, even worse than coal.

As well as being very damaging from an environmental point of view, generating electricity from peat is also uneconomic. This year, consumers are paying around €3.50 on every electricity bill to subsidise the continued use of peat for power generation. This “public service obligation” is justified on the basis that it supports employment in the midlands and energy security, albeit at the cost of much higher emissions of greenhouse gases.

The total sum involved amounts to a subsidy of more than €100 million a year to peat generation. Currently a little under a thousand people in Bord na Móna are employed on supplying peat for electricity.

Thus the current subsidy per job involved is at least €100,000 a year. The Bord na Móna annual report indicates that, in the year 2016/2017, its workers’ average pay was €50,000. In other words, the subsidy per job is around twice what the workers involved actually earn.

If the peat-fired power stations were closed tomorrow, and the workers involved continued to be employed on their current wages, subsidising these jobs would only cost €50 million, not €100 million. Electricity consumers would pay less to subsidise these jobs, and Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions would fall substantially as a result of discontinuing this polluting fuel use.

The EPA’s figures also make clear that emissions of greenhouse gases from peat-fired electricity generation is only part of the environmental damage that will arise over the coming decade from continuing this activity.

The current policy is to substitute wood (biomass) for some of the peat used in generating electricity. This will marginally reduce the direct emissions of greenhouse gases compared to burning only peat. However, the biomass which will be used in generating electricity will be diverted from a better use: providing a renewable source of heat to households and businesses.

By using this wood in peat-fired power stations, Ireland risks missing its obligation to develop renewable sources of heat, and may attract significant EU penalties as a result.

Carbon dioxide

Wet bogland is an important carbon sink, where bogs take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and fix it in peat. This feature is lost when turf is harvested and dried, even before further carbon is released when burnt to generate power.

The new plan to keep peat-fired electricity going till 2030 is a lose-lose-lose policy. It will add significantly to Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, it will cost the people of Ireland a lot of money, and it will see less carbon dioxide being absorbed into our peat bogs.

This is misguided policy. We should plan for the closure by 2020 of peat-fired generation. A limited amount of the saving on subsidies could be used to develop alternative sustainable employment for those currently working in the sector. This would greatly benefit the environment, it would save electricity consumers a lot of money, and it would protect the livelihoods of those who are currently employed in the midlands harvesting peat – a win-win-win.

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