Focus on low-density development must change, climate committee hears

Policy on emissions providing ‘aspirin when patient needs triple heart bypass’

Ireland's model of development "has hardwired us to mainly low-density development dependent on car-based transport", which fails to address climate change and population growth issues, according to the planning regulator Niall Cussen.

As a consequence there was a continuing failure to embrace compact development in urban areas, which was critical to addressing high carbon emissions associated with transport, he told the Oireachtas climate committee.

The committee on Tuesday heard evidence from experts of widespread failures of transport and planning policy, which meant achieving Ireland’s emissions reduction targets would be difficult to achieve. It is embarking on a series of hearings on how to achieve a 51 per cent cut in transport emissions by 2030.

Legislative reforms in 2010 introduced stricter controls on zoning for development but implementing them had been challenging, Mr Cussen said – the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) is statutorily obliged to enforce the national planning framework (NPF).


Some local authorities, Mr Cussen said, “work hard on climate action centred planning policy despite significant vested interest, political and sometimes public opposition where the link between certain developments and climate are not fully appreciated”.

“Other local authorities point to brownfield and higher density development being much less economic compared to lower density greenfield development. They see following traditional patterns of development essential in meeting housing supply pressures.”

Communities “often want to retain familiar 19th-century skylines as our cities and towns address 21st-century challenges including an extra 1 million people by 2040”, he noted.

Building upwards and making better use of underutilised urban land, providing attractive, affordable urban housing and connected communities are antidotes to “our historical business-as-usual outwards pattern of energy-intensive urban sprawl”, Mr Cussen said.

Urban sprawl meant increasing energy demands and failure to tap sustainable energy sources. “Yet assessment of local authority plans find effective bans on rollout of sustainable energy sources. If repeated around the country, these will block achievement of our targets. We will act resolutely on any policy breaches we find,” he warned.

Dr Tadhg O'Mahony, an adviser to the Finland Futures Research Centre, said Ireland's transport emissions were – per capita – the fourth highest in the EU.

“Emissions have continued to grow, while we require them to come down rapidly. We have delivered perfect conditions for lock-in to a carbon intensive transport system. Through urban sprawl, our settlement pattern has increased travel distances,” he added.

“If our severely congested, emissions intensive and economically costly transport system were a heart patient, it would be in cardiac failure. Our policy is providing an aspirin when the patient needs a triple heart bypass,” Dr O’Mahony said.

Making progress required vision and political leadership, he said, while post-Covid provided “unique opportunity to reset and put ourselves on the right side of history”.

Committee chairman Brian Leddin of the Green Party said in light of evidence presented, it had to be asked if the NPF was fit for purpose, given more demanding emissions targets agreed since it was adopted in 2018. The committee will set out the particular challenges arising from this, and recommend actions on transport and planning to address policy gaps, he added.

Until the NPF is properly acted upon, “we will continue to approve and develop too much in locations that hard wire us into increasing energy demands and fail to tap sustainable energy sources”, Mr Cussen warned.

Turning around the affordability, attractiveness and viability of large-scale housing delivery in town and city centres was critical. As was a national brownfield and infill development land register empowering local authorities to implement vacant and derelict sites legislation, he said.

Spatial planning policies were hugely influential in determining transport patterns. “The less we spread out, travel lowers and so do energy needs and emissions.”

Technology can also break old links between work and mobility, Mr Cussen said. “Remote working is a new lifeline for rural towns and villages. The desire to help struggling town and city centres delivers advances in new pedestrian and cycle friendly urban areas.”

Climate plan

While the 2019 climate action plan was a laudable effort, “it has a problematic relationship with transport”, said Dr O’Mahony who was lead author of the transport element in the EPA’s 2020 State of the Environment report.

It was insufficient to meet 2030 emissions targets, though it was forced to ramp up the goal for EVs “to a level that is difficult to achieve”.

In addition, the NPF and National Development Plan had modest, shorter-term aims for compact growth and for shifting journeys.

“We now have a far deeper emissions reduction target, and it is a risky and potentially costly gamble to rely on EVs to meet it ... this would make our 2050 emissions commitments harder to achieve, and deepen the many sustainability problems associated with our transport system.”

These included “world-leading traffic congestion”; damage to economic competitiveness; road traffic accidents and health impacts of particulate pollution.

For deep emissions reductions and sustainability, the “avoid-shift-improve” approach should apply. “This transformative approach demands that policy move from short-term to long, from marginal tweaks to big vision, and from improving technology to fundamentally transforming systems.”

Stricter regulations at EU level and technology developments meant Irish people could in time access low-carbon mobility, said Andrew Murphy of the NGO Transport & Environment.

“However, the public should always be given a choice, and no one should be forced into a 20th century model of private car ownership which continues to have substantial financial, social and economic negative consequences.”

A one-far-one switch between internal combustion engines and electric vehicles (EVs) would be a missed opportunity, he underlined. It would “undermine the effectiveness of public transport investments, place continued financial pressure on families, and would risk putting Irish cities further out of step with their European counterparts”.

Ireland had the lowest level of rail freight in Europe, Mr Murphy pointed out, and needed to fully assess how that might be scaled up in embracing sustainable transport. While it was not an easy solution, it should considered with increased electrification.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times