Climate action plan: how difficult will it be to deliver on the five key targets?

The many aims for individual sectors remain highly aspirational with little detail

Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton announcing details of the climate action plan at TU Dublin, Grangegorman, on Monday. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton announcing details of the climate action plan at TU Dublin, Grangegorman, on Monday. Photograph: Dara MacDónaill

 

Richard Bruton loves action plans. When he became minister for enterprise and jobs in 2011 he had an action plan for jobs. He also had one in education. Now, as Minister for Communications and Climate Action, he has produced his latest action plan. This one is arguably the most ambitious, and will set the “road map” for government policy on climate change between now and 2030, and also to 2050.

Overall, the plan features 183 action plans and a timeline for delivery. Some of the actions will take a long time (for example, gas-fired boilers will be banned for new homes after 2025) but there are deadlines later this year, and during 2020, for achieving progress on most of the targets set out in the plan.

It sets out how Ireland will meet its obligations under the EU greenhouse gas emissions target. That requires the State to reduce emissions by 30 per cent between 2021 and 2030.

This is highly challenging. Under the National Development Plan, or Project 2040, Ireland would not meet those targets. Indeed, emissions in the largest sectors such as agriculture and transport are actually set to rise thanks to a growing population and a growing economy.

If the climate action plan in its totality is implemented there is a chance Ireland could meet the targets (effectively reducing emissions by 2 per cent each year), and put the State on a stronger trajectory to decarbonise fully by 2050.

The biggest drawback of the plan is that it is not costed outside the Project 2040 commitments. That has been repeatedly pointed out as a weakness.

Some of the overarching measures are sensible and will be achieved. The structure that will put the plan in place is a logical one, with the Department of the Taoiseach taking the lead. There will be five-year carbon budgets and carbon- proofing of policies.

The carbon tax is one of the few tangible figures the plan has produced. It will increase gradually over the next 10 years to €80 per tonne. It looks inevitable the first increase will occur in the budget in October. The Climate Change Advisory Council has suggested €15, which would put about 4 cent on a litre of petrol and 40 cent on a bale of briquettes.

Yet many aims for individual sectors remain highly aspirational, and there is little detail about how they will be achieved.

AGRICULTURE

Agriculture is the biggest emitting sector. And current projections are for an increase, rather than a decrease, between now and 2030 as the industry expands. Emissions from cattle and sheep present a biological process problem, not easily dealt with short of a cull of some of the national herd (which would never wash politically).

The measures in this area are primarily aspirational, and will be heavily reliant on afforestation and the rewetting of peatlands. These would act as sinks to capture or sequester carbon. But even these actions will present problems.

There is no explicit mention of reducing cattle or sheep numbers. It does implicitly suggest this happening, however. The new Common Agriculture Policy after 2020 will also reward sustainability, carbon sinks and climate protection, encouraging some farmers to diversify from livestock.

Mostly the plan put its faith in technology and “smart farming”. It advocates less use of fertilisers, the use of advanced feed additives to reduce methane emissions, and less harmful ways of spreading slurry. Some of these technologies are still unproven or will have limited impact.

The most ambitious component is to plant 8,000 hectares of new forest each year. That’s difficult too. The rate of planting has fallen in the last decade. Farmers are reluctant to accept afforestation. The report says the concept of more farmers planting trees on their land is a “desirable outcome”. Unfortunately, it cannot spell out any specific measure to achieve this goal.

Unforgivably, there is hardly any mention of biodiversity in the report, nor of the seas or coastline.

TRANSPORT

The goal to have 950,000 electric vehicles (EVs) in Ireland by 2030 is not quite as unattainable as it first seems. The report notes a few facts that give credibility to the target. Battery prices fell 79 per cent over the past seven years and are projected to fall a further 67 per cent by 2030.

If that happens it will be cheaper to buy electric vehicles than a petrol or diesel vehicle, well before 2030. In addition, rising carbon taxes, the equalisation of fuel prices for diesel and petrol, as well as increased motor taxes will make the proposition more achievable.

The two biggest barriers for motorists in terms of buying an electric car are price and range. However, the Hyundai Kona, which retails for €39,000 and has a range of 440km, gives an indication of lower prices and increased range in future.

So even without government intervention, sales of EVs look likely to increase sharply. However, the Government’s intention is to consider replacing the grants available at present with a scrappage scheme from 2020.

The other side of that equation is a charging network. It is relatively sparse at the moment, but there are plans to have charging points for 800,000 cars available throughout Ireland by 2030.

Local authorities will have a role, but how such an extensive network will be funded and installed is not spelled out in detail. It is expected that most EV owners will charge their vehicles at home.

Other aspects of the plan on transport are less defined. BusConnects will go ahead and increase bus journeys by 50 per cent in urban areas, it says, even though opposition to the current plan is mounting.

There are only two solid commitments to cycling. One is the promise of a 200km cycle network with BusConnects. Another is the appointment of a cycle project officer in the National Transport Authority.

BUILDING

The plan’s major response to reduce the dependency on fossil fuel is two-pronged. It proposes to ban oil-fired boilers from 2022 and gas boilers from 2025. The inclusion of solid targets will send out a strong signal to the market. Any new housing or apartment development now under planning will veer away from either of those technologies.

The alternative to those are heat pumps. The plan projects that 600,000 heat pumps will be installed in Irish homes over the next decade.

However, for a heat pump (which essentially extracts heat from ambient air within the dwelling) to work efficiently the house has to be very well insulated and ventilated.

The second ambitious target is to retrofit 500,000 homes and improve their insulation so they have a Ber B2 rating. This is a costly item, with upfront costs of between €10,000 and €60,000. For many householders it is unaffordable.

The Government has had insulation schemes before but the results have been modest, with 23,000 retrofits. Most of these have been shallow such as improving attic insulation.

To combat this the Government will change the payment system. It will look at providing smart financing and an “easy pay back”, either through utility bills or property tax.

Doing 500,000 homes in a decade is a tall order. A task force is being set up immediately, and it will have its work cut out.

ENERGY

While Ireland has been a leader in moving to renewables, emissions are still 13 per cent higher than the EU average because of Ireland’s dependency on coal and peat. In addition, demand looks set to increase as the economy grows – for example it is estimated that data centres will use 39 per cent of all electricity power.

To address that the plan provides that renewable energy such as wind and solar power will provide 70 per cent of all electricity by 2030 (up from 55 per cent). This will require a substantial increase in offshore wind and a contribution from solar energy However, the bulk of the increased electricity will come from land-based wind farms.

There are two firm commitments in the plan, to close the Moneypoint coal-burning station by 2025 and the peat-burning stations in the midlands by 2028.

The potential for ocean-based energy (from wind, wave and tidal) is huge, but the technology is not fully developed to harness this potential. It will also need its own grid. In the meantime a “top team” will be set up to drive ocean wind energy.

The fallback will be the interconnectors to France and the UK which will make up the shortfall for not meeting the target or from intermittent wind energy.

The solar part of the plan is modest. There are no proposals for solar farms. There is provision, however, for micro- generation, which will allow those with solar panels to sell energy to the grid.

Again, this part of the plan seems a big ask.

WASTE

The 58 per cent increase in waste emissions since 2011 is a surefire sign of a growing economy.

Ireland’s record for reducing waste sent to landfill is comparatively good within the EU. A levy on landfill as well as strong recycling policies have contributed to this.

The plan aims to reduce landfill waste to 10 per cent of all waste by 2035. It also commits to recycle 70 per cent of packaging waste by 2030, and recycle over half of plastic packaging waste.

There is also a proposal to ban specific singe-use plastic items, and ensure all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable by 2030.

These measures will make this one of the more achievable targets. It will be helped by an EU-wide plastic packaging tax, and an EU single-use plastic ban.

There is great scope for recycling. The most challenging part is the big step in plastic recycling to over 50 per cent.

This forms a small sector of the overall plan, and its targets all look capable of implementation within the time frame.