An orderly move to a low-carbon society and the elimination of Ireland's dependence on fossil fuels would take time, Minister for Climate Action and the Environment Denis Naughten has said.
Speaking at an Irish Congress of Trade Unions’ conference on the implications of climate change on the energy sector, Mr Naughten said the switch away from fossil fuels and use of energy in more efficient ways could lead to local jobs and opportunities for Irish companies.
He strongly defended Ireland’s climate change targets, and actions being taken by the Government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
At present, Ireland was importing 88 per cent of its energy needs in the form of “high emission fossil fuels”, which were costing €500,000 an hour, every day; “money we cannot afford to pay”. Using less energy in a cost-effective way was the best way to take effective action on climate change, he noted. Developing indigenous Irish energy sources and ways for smarter use would create jobs.
The Government was committed to achieving long-term targets to reduce emissions by 2050, but unlike those who called for radical actions now whatever the consequences, he accepted the need for a “just transition” to a low-carbon society especially for workers and communities.
While science tells us we cannot wait indefinitely, all parties across society needed to be honest about the future and to change their traditional perceptions.
Prior to the last election, he accepted three peat-fired power stations in the midlands were not sustainable and there needed to be honest and frank conversation about their use. Some people argued they should be closed down immediately but he believed clean employment opportunities were required for the current skills mix.
He said he was conscious of what had happened to workers and their families with the announcement of the closure of Littleton peat briquette factory in Co Tipperary last week. Engagement and imagination were needed to come up with different solutions and outcomes.
Producing biomass was an opportunity for the midlands.A new semi-State entity, Bioenergy Ireland, would support a market there and in other parts of the country under a plan to be brought to Government shortly. He also believed Ireland was uniquely placed for the generation of biogas though the development of “green gas” supplies had some way to go.
By 2020, 40 per cent of Irish electricity would be generated by renewable energy sources (compared to 26 per cent today). At any one time up to 75 per cent would come from wind, as Mr Naughten predicted a resolution would be found to fall-off or drop of supply issues when using wind sources. New draft wind energy guidelines would be presented to the Government by Minister for Housing Simon Coveney and himself in the next few weeks that would require engagement with communities and ensuring a critical economic dividend.
While progress was being made in developing ocean wave energy protoypes in Ireland, no one technology would solve the emissions problem, he said.
Just as the semi-State sector was the key to the initial industrialisation of Ireland, its role in bringing about a just transition to a low carbon economy could be equally as dynamic, said Adrian Kane, chairman of ICTU’s energy and natural resources committee. “Unless we plan our way to a low-carbon future it will not happen.
“Time, as we all know, is running out. It is easy to feel morally superior to the climate change deniers, from the likes of Trump or Michael O’Leary but, unless we actually try to tackle it, are we really any better? And while the necessity to reduce carbon emissions can be tackled in the abstract, because the vast majority of people actually get it; when it comes to making hard and difficult decisions, the consequences of responding to it in our own back yard . . . that’s when things begin to fall apart,” Mr Kane said.
The recent announcement by both Bord na Móna and the ESB in respect of building large scale solar parks was a good example of this type of planning. The announcement to close-down Littleton factory was the exact opposite of a just transition, he added.
Bord na Móna was now in decline in its core business as bogs were being mined-out and no new ones were being harvested. “In some respects, Ireland’s small towns are beginning to resemble the north of England’s bleak post-industrial wastelands.”
He warned: “We now stand at an historical turning point; deindustrialisation has condemned whole communities to a post-industrial malaise. There is a palpable sense of hopelessness and powerlessness in post-industrial communities. The transition to a low-carbon economy has the potential to accelerate the rate of deindustrialisation.
“And if we don’t find a way to bring about a ‘just transition’ we will be complicit in replicating the post-industrial apocalypse that has been the fate of communities in so called rust-belts all-across the world.”
He called for an establishment of a tripartite body of trade unions, employers and Government to ensure a just transition to a low carbon economy; a special fund both at European and national level to assist communities and workers and a study of the impact of meeting our goals under the Paris Agreement will have on fossil fuel dependent communities in Ireland.
Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth said there was an “implementation gap” in relation to Ireland. We had committed under the Paris Agreement to an 80 per cent cut in emissions by 2050 compared to 1990, which given a political decision maintaining the status quo in agriculture, would require a 5 per cent cut in emissions year-on-year in every other sector, with an even higher target in the energy sector. While people perceived it was a long time away, in reality it was “a little bit longer than a mortgage on a house”.
“The challenge is that change is coming whether we like it or not . . . It’s either coming because we organise the just transition, or too late to do it in a planned fashion,” he added.
He welcomed the national dialogue to achieve the objective on emissions, but it was coming too late to meet the Government’s own decarbonisation targets, which under the Paris Agreement are likely to be further tightened, as the world continues to get warmer and Irish emissions are currently increasing on a yearly basis. Under the Kyoto Protocol Ireland was told 19 years ago to introduce a carbon tax; to stop burning peat and to switch Moneypoint power station from using coal to gas. "All this is only beginning now,” Mr Coghlan said.
The “Just Transition” concept recognises the need to transition from a fossil fuel economy to a climate-friendly economy as fast as possible, in the fairest way possible. In December 2015 global leaders committed to the legally-binding UN Paris Agreement to phase out fossil fuels and limit global warming to below 1.5 degrees.
Fought for by a coalition of environmental NGOs and trade union groups, the term “Just Transition” in the Preamble of the agreement recognises “there are no jobs on a dead planet” and workers are at the interface between society and nature. The process of transition requires that the effect of climate action, or inaction, on workers and their communities be taken into account.