Climate plan: Short-term cost for long-run gain

Big upfront costs for current generation but plan is fastest route to sustainable prosperity

The shift in tone is obvious: this is not the Government’s reaction to a distant threat, it’s the national response to human-influenced “climate breakdown” already derailing the planet that risks imminent catastrophe.

It is full of bold actions. Ireland is to become "a leader in electrifying transport in the EU", all new fleet purchases in the public sector to be zero-emission vehicles, no new fossil-fuel heating systems to be installed from 2023 in public buildings, a mass retrofitting programme of 500,000 homes.

History suggests all this will again fall short as we continue to be among countries with the highest per-capita carbon emissions in the world, yet the level of detail provides some assurance that a course for decarbonisation over coming decades is finally set out.

It's more than double the ambition of the 2019 climate action plan drawn up by former Fine Gael minister for the environment Richard Bruton; the first government plan of substance after a lost decade in addressing what was clearly an unfolding crisis. Critically, the kind of cross-party consensus needed to begin transforming not only the economy but also society had emerged through a landmark Oireachtas climate committee report.



The new plan has obvious enhancements with more rigorous targets tied into what the science is indicating and much more detail on how they will be achieved. The overriding driver of action is the 2030 target of halving emissions in line with seeking to contain global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees. Electrification will be the great workhorse, though associated grid infrastructure is urgently needed.

The €125 billion package behind it was apparently the main stumbling block among Coalition parties. The climate imperative demands this kind of spending – and more. There will be considerable upfront costs for the current generation but it is the quickest route to sustainable prosperity.

Until legally-adopted sectoral ceilings are put in place under the carbon budget process, "indicative reduction ranges" on emission cuts are applied. Analysis by Hannah Daly of MaREI energy institute in UCC indicates only the upper end of all sectoral ranges would get us to 51 per cent.

There are obvious blockages to progress too, which if not addressed will impair momentum and exacerbate risk associated with justifiable backloading big emission reductions towards the end of the decade. The standout areas requiring most attention are:

Transport: A radical shift to public and active travel (cycling and walking) within a nine-year period is probably the biggest ask because of the level of embedded car use with poor public transport in most areas outside of major cities. The shift to EVs has begun but the high cost of vehicles and poor charging infrastructure make a target of a million by 2030 extremely challenging.

Agriculture: Farming is about to undergo immense changes because of the need to halve levels of methane globally by 2050. This requires no less than a complete rebalancing of agriculture – and land use – whereby farmer holdings capture carbon through forestry, exploit bioenergy through routine use of anaerobic digesters, enhance biodiversity and, most of all, have the most sustainable dairy and beef production systems in the world.

A 22-30 per cent emissions cut being applied by the plan confirms direction of travel. The most reliable science indicates this cannot be done without a global shift towards plant-based diets. Based on current technological solutions, it cannot be done in Ireland without reducing livestock numbers.

If the transition is supported at every turn – arguably the biggest task of the new climate justice commission – and with unprecedented innovation, it is achievable. Increased viability of family farms will be the long-term reward.

Planning shortcomings: The planning system is not fit for purpose in rolling out major infrastructure in a timely manner – especially renewable-energy technology, upon which the report is heavily reliant.

Confirmation that Norwegian company Equinor, one of the world's leading energy companies, is pulling out of the Irish market over concerns about the regulatory and planning regime will undermine confidence in the renewables sector. Huge private capital – essential to achieving ambitious targets – needs certainty and reasonable timelines.

Doing the right thing: Going green in Ireland is frequently a lot harder than in many other countries, whether embracing EVs, deep retrofitting a house or switching to public transport. Compounding matters are affordability issues, whereby the sustainable option is often more costly, and bureaucracy all too often undermines missionary zeal.

There is no sugar-coating the appalling vista looming this century. The science has provided shocking clarity: based on current emissions we are facing an average 2.7 degree rise in coming decades, making for a planet incessantly hostile to human life. The latest scientific verdicts on this issued at Cop26 confirm that view.

Government pledge

So what has been promised by the Government in this latest climate plan is probably not enough to help avoid that unfolding scenario. There is not enough concerted effort to force down emissions quickly while getting off fossil fuels, insufficient funding and targeting of supports to make it all happen and not enough communication – with honesty – to a worried public. That it is still all achievable together; and reassurance we are not about to go over a cliff in 2050.

That does not mean the plan is fundamentally flawed; it is a roadmap for climate action at scale. But nothing less than full implementation, relentless focus on delivery of targets across all sectors, having learned the lessons of past dismal failures, is required after systemic blockages are cleared. Increasing ambition further through annual climate plans will be essential to bridge gaps.

Climate scientist Peter Thorne recently posed the fundamental question: "Will we be seen as a people who knew we had a problem and fixed it quickly to make [Earth] liveable for many generations hence, or will we be the damned?"

If in 2030 Irish emissions are halved and we are on our way to achieving net-zero by 2050 at the latest, having fully embraced carbon budgets and the discipline they impose, and follow this plan, then we will be regarded as a people who did their bit in fixing the planet.