Paris Agreement: Profound changes ahead for Ireland
Move to carbon neutrality will hit home in every sector emitting greenhouse gases
Agriculture comprises an eighth of gross domestic product (GDP) in the State, but emissions from the sector comprise a third of total emissions. The problem is methane emitted by ruminant animals. File photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
As a developed country with a quickly expanding economy, Ireland will experience significant repercussions during this century as a result of the Paris Agreement.
The move towards net carbon neutrality will mean profound changes in every sector which currently emits greenhouse gases, including agriculture, transport, electricity, heat and industry.
Ireland was one of the few EU countries which went into the negotiations with its own climate change legislation.
The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill will become law in the new year.
While it has been criticised for not including specific goals for emissions in the long-term, the legislation does provide for a carbon neutral situation by mid-century and also commits to match Ireland’s targets with those of the EU.
There were a few late amendments which were also seen as positive in the Bill - namely a reference to climate justice (protecting poor countries from being denied the ability to develop their economies because of restrictions on emissions).
An expert advisory council has also been established under the legislation. It is hoped it will achieve the same profile and authority as the Fiscal Advisory Council in the area of economics.
There is a fly in the ointment for Ireland as regards its agricultural emissions. However, this is an argument for another day. The Irish Government has subscribed fully to the EU position. And the small team of Irish negotiators did not vary from the position of the union as a whole during the two weeks of talks.
The team consisted of Dave Walsh, John O’Neill, Petra Woods and John O’Neill of the Department of the Environment; Eugene Hendricks of the Department of Agriculture; Dr Frank McGovern of the Environmental Protection Agency, and an advisory counsel from the Attorney General’s office.
So what will it all mean for the various sectors?
There will be move towards electrification. This needs to start now. The train network, currently diesel, will need to electrify.
New cars will be increasingly electric. The Government had big plans for expansion of the electric car fleet during this term, but it has not happened.
Organically, however, in the past 18 months, sales of electric cars have crept up to about 700 (still way short of what is needed).
The big difficulty with electric vehicles at the moment is range anxiety, with a full battery charge giving little over 100km in most electric vehicles.
New technological advances will improve this, but they will likely be urban-based.
In tandem with this, there is likely to be renewed focus on biofuels. Brian Ó Gallchóir of UCC has said it is probably a more cost-effective means in the near future, but it could revive the land-use debate between food, and fuel crops.
Neil Walker of Ibec has pointed out that in the short term, compressed natural gas (CNG) could be an attractive low carbon (albeit fossil) alternative to diesel for buses and freight.
“One of the co-benefits is a reduction in particulate emissions, and hence improved air quality in urban areas.
“As you may be aware, the Irish Government is encouraging the switch to CNG through a favourable rate of excise duty. In the longer term, it will also be feasible to inject substantial quantities of bio-methane into the gas distribution network.”
This is going to be a major headache.
Agriculture comprises an eighth of gross domestic product (GDP) in the State, but its emissions comprise a third of total emissions.
The problem is methane emitted by ruminant animals. There are hopes that research with feedstuffs will help reduce that but at the moment, the gain is marginal.
Under two government policies, there are plans to increase the national herd by 300,000. Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly says this can be done without increasing emissions.
He and Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney have argued that Irish agriculture is one of the most sustainable sectors in the world. They also point out the need to provide food to a growing world population.
Will that cut any slack with our EU partners, when the 40 per cent emissions target for 2030 is being debated in the spring?
A little perhaps, but no more than that. It is likely that in the absence of a breakthrough technology, some Irish companies will be facing hefty carbon levies in the future.
In addition, if new afforestation is accepted as a carbon sink, the portion of afforested land in the State is likely to double, primarily as an offset against carbon emissions.
As Prof Ó Gallchóir has pointed out, Ireland’s housing stock is poorly insulated, although new builds have benefitted from greatly improved standards.
The Government did promise a scheme to help retrofit 1 million homes in the Programme for Government, but a lack of funding put paid to it.
That project will have to be revisited - as proper insulation in buildings is more effective than any other single initiative in cutting down on the necessity for heat and electricity, and fossil fuels.
There has always been a huge focus on electricity, although it comprises only 20 per cent of energy use.
The development of renewables has been relatively successful, although it is unlikely to meet its own EU target of 40 per cent renewable by 2020.
Wind has been the primary part of this segment.
While Ireland has been at the forefront of research into the potential of tide and ocean energy, it has not yet reached scaleable potential.
The variable nature of renewable energy will require clever new storage solutions. The batteries of electric vehicles (charging overnight or when conditions are windy) provide one solution.
There will also be a host of smart solutions to ensure that when energy production is strongest, storage solutions will be found.
Carbon capture and storage technology is still at an early stage but will need to be accelerated very quickly in the light of the increased ambition of the Paris Agreement.
The Emissions Traded Sector (which carbon-intensive industry and power) will probably become a bigger player in time, with the price of carbon invariably rising as the targets become more onerous and fossil fuel becomes more expensive.