An energy system with net-zero emissions is achievable in Ireland by 2050 with likely benefits going far beyond addressing the climate crisis, according to a report by MaREI energy institute in UCC.
Through accelerated electrification over coming decades, which will be cost effective, Ireland will wean off fossil fuels and secure cleaner air, warmer homes and tens of thousands of sustainable jobs, it concludes.
Wind will replace oil as the dominant energy source, it predicts, but decarbonising the power system is required by 2035 to enable other sectors, notably transport, heating and industry, to follow suit. The report published on Wednesday was commissioned by Wind Energy Ireland (WEI) and funded with support from energy companies.
WEI chief executive Dr David Connolly said a climate equivalent of the National Public Health Emergency team, which is advising the Government on Covid-19, was required if the mid-century target was to be realised.
Minister for Climate Action Eamon Ryan said the findings show "not only how we can decarbonise but how we can do so in a way that builds our economy and delivers a cleaner, more sustainable and secure future for us all" .
With the national climate objective to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, “a new climate action plan to set out how we will achieve this” will be completed in coming months. “Today’s report is an important and valuable contribution to the debate,” he added.
The report identifies three key “no-regrets” options which must be aggressively pursued by the Government; prioritising energy efficiency, rapid electrification and accelerated facilitation of renewable energy projects.
“Making our society energy efficient must be our first principle. The barriers to retrofitting homes and using more energy-efficient technology must be eliminated. Investment is required to rapidly train the skilled workers we will need,” it says.
“Electricity, not oil, must become the backbone of our energy system. Every form of transport or heating that can be electrified, must be, as quickly as possible,” it adds.
Renewable energy projects such as wind farms – onshore and offshore – and solar farms “must be developed far more quickly, along with and sustainable bioenergy, to fully decarbonise our energy system”.
“We have the technology, the resources, the skills and the investment to create a net-zero energy system within 30 years . . . This report shows how we deliver the Climate Action Bill, launched last week, and make the Government’s 2050 vision a reality. But it can only happen with an unprecedented mobilisation across every level of Irish society and a shared commitment to a cleaner, brighter, energy future,” Dr Connolly added.
Having the equivalent of Nphet to drive the country towards a net-zero energy system did not require reinventing the wheel, he insisted – the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) could fulfil the role, he suggested.
Lead author Dr Paul Deane said: "This is our blueprint to a cleaner future and demonstrates that producing our own renewable energy in Ireland delivers benefits beyond climate action in terms of employment, warmer homes, cleaner transport and reduces our reliance on imported fossil fuel to near zero."
Wind will provide two-thirds of Ireland’s total energy needs by 2050, either directly through the electricity supply, or by generating large amounts of hydrogen for heating, transport or to use in power plants, the report finds. It will be supported by significant volumes of bioenergy, solar power and battery storage.
“More than 50,000 new jobs will be needed to make this a reality as we develop wind farms, install heat pumps in homes, retrofit buildings and develop the electricity grid we will need to make Ireland truly energy independent,” Dr Deane underlined.
The report’s authors calculate the total annual investment needed to decarbonise the energy system amounts to approximately 1.4 per cent of GDP – Ireland currently invests approximately 8.5 per cent of GDP in energy every year.
“The cost of building a cleaner, warmer, energy independent Ireland is very small. The cost of sitting back and hoping that someone else can stop climate change will be astronomical,” Dr Connolly noted.
He added: “We know what we need to do. Now is the time to act ...To deliver, we need to bring together policymakers and leaders at every level of Irish society to drive the essential changes and the reforms, to bring the same level of urgency to reducing our carbon emissions as we did to flattening the Covid curve.”
It was essential that the new climate action plan gives some independent body, such as the CCAC, “the power and the authority to unite us all behind a shared common goal of a zero-carbon, energy independent, Ireland”.
The report warns net-zero will entail “difficult choices and some headwinds” as infrastructure such as the national grid “must be built, large investment must be sought, renewable fuels [are] required, and homes and businesses [need to be]transformed”.
“Without these changes and societal and political support, a net-zero energy system cannot be achieved. Engagement and transparency at an early stage with the public is key,” it adds.
The rewards, however, would be considerable, Dr Deane said. "Today, Ireland is one of the dependent countries in Europe on imported fossil fuels...By 2050, this could reduce to less than 5 per cent."
The Our Climate Neutral Future: Zero by 50 report, which did not consider aviation or shipping, was jointly funded by WEI and Skillnet Ireland with additional support from ElectroRoute, ESB, Energia, Ionic Consulting, Scottish Power and RWE.