Q&A: What would scaled-up climate actions mean for your carbon-intensive lifestyle?

Without immediate action Ireland has no hope of meeting 2030 carbon reduction targets

Delivering on climate targets will require every part of the economy shaping up, where most households and consumers will no longer be allowed the luxury of easily availing of opt outs.

Delivering on climate targets will require every part of the economy shaping up, where most households and consumers will no longer be allowed the luxury of easily availing of opt outs.

 

The EPA normally lets climate data talk for itself but its latest analysis of Irish greenhouse emissions comes with a frank warning – without immediate scaled-up actions we have no hope of meeting demanding but necessary 2030 carbon reduction targets.

Delivering on these will require every part of the economy shaping up, where most households and consumers will no longer be allowed the luxury of easily availing of opt outs.

Why are these emission reductions necessary?
The targets are core to commitments in Climate Bill – the key driver for addressing the climate crisis over coming decades. They are aligned to much more ambitious EU targets of halving emissions by the end of the decade, and essential if Ireland is to achieve “net-zero” emissions by 2050 at the latest.

This scale of action needed rules out pick-and-choose the politically least painful options and heralds the ending of “we will wait and see how these limited actions work out” – as poor delivery of what Ireland has promised previously to do is undermining the country’s green credentials.

Crucially, they are necessary to avoid irreversible impacts on Planet Earth from 2030 on and to avoid catastrophic global heating soon after; it’s what climate science says is urgently required.

And rest assured, Ireland will not be able to evade distinctive and devastating consequences if worldwide emissions collectively are not forced down, sooner rather than later.

The EPA’s message is underlined by the International Monetary Fund which has flagged the immense spend required; we need to invest €20 billion annually for next 10 years of which one-third should be capital spending on climate-sensitive infrastructure – energy supply, transport, water and waste. This is separate to the elephant in the room, agriculture, which is responsible for 35 per cent of national emissions. Put bluntly, we are not sufficiently geared-up yet.

So if accelerated actions are needed, where will they be concentrated?
The problem areas in Ireland are clear for some time. These are in energy use; transport, heating buildings and emissions associated with dairy and beef farming ie biogenic methane.

So that is where changes would be immediately felt. We have an economy almost totally dependent on fossil fuels, with the exception of increasing wind energy used to generate electricity; poor public transport due to decades of under investment and over-reliance on the car; drafty homes using oil, gas and peat; and an ever expanding farming sector.

Common agricultural policy (CAP) reforms, however, are likely to get across the line shortly and to redirect European farming as environmental management rather than intensive production will receive most supports in future.

What will force the behavioural change necessary?
It might not feel like it but early action will minimise financial pain that will inevitable come with further delay and procrastination. It will bring on stream the benefits of less air pollution; warmer homes, increased liveability in urban areas and reassurance we are finally addressing the climate threat and nature in accelerating decline.

The ultimate reward will be a sustainable society and ways of commerce with a much better chance of avoiding dangerous climate tipping points.

Three enablers will make it all possible: five-yearly carbon budgets limiting how much C02 can be expended in every sector; merciless but focussed increases in carbon taxes (the stick) – ie increasingly penalising any activity using oil, gas or coal etc – while enhancing the attractiveness of cheaper renewable energy (the carrot), and by securing public acceptance; perhaps the hardest task of all.

It all appears daunting; so where should we start?
The 2019 climate action plan was hugely challenging, and had three main planks, according to energy analyst Prof Brian Ó Gallachóir of MaREI institute in UCC. Its main thrust was more renewable electricity; a huge retrofitting initiative and rapid electrification across the economy.

But what’s needed now is “more of the above”, augmented by “new things”, he says, and finally getting to grips on agriculture. Among new actions, he suggests reducing energy consumption – embracing such basic things as energy efficiency and driver training on the benefits of less speed on motorways – and much more deployment of renewable fuels, which often receives little attention.

Sweden, he adds, has deployed renewable diesel to cut emissions, especially in hard-to-decarbonise areas of transport. We may have 1 million EVs on Irish roads by 2030 but still have 1.2 million other vehicles, so liquid biofuels will be especially important in freight.

What else is coming down the tracks on transport?
It increasingly clear that replacing the current road tax system with road use charges across the State is inevitable, while introducing congestion charges in Dublin will be hard to resist though alternatives to the car are clearly not in place yet.

In tandem with this, public transport needs to move to a different level in convenience and accessibility, with a metro for the capital and accelerated rollout of light rail in other major cities.

The scale of change needed will not happen without shift to transport-orientated development, which seeks to maximise provision of housing, employment, public services and leisure space within close proximity to transport nodes (eg rail and/or bus) that are serviced by frequent, high-quality services.

What of heat and retrofitting buildings?
A national retrofit plan is due later this year with a view to retrofitting 500,000 homes over the next decade, and rapidly ending the use of fossil fuels in the home.

It is a massively costly and complex ask for the average householder. Without adequate supports and funding, it simply won’t happen – though tighter building regulations are already helping to cut emissions in the sector.

With hard to electrify parts of industry requiring big heat, genuinely renewable gas will play a key role, Ó Gallachóir predicts.

Having 70 per cent renewable electricity on the grid by 2030, is that achievable?
Grid provider Eirgrid has big ambitions in this regard, with every chance they will be achieved with the right level of investment and scale up of onshore and offshore wind as well as solar power – based on past performance.

Going beyond 70 per cent is desirable, especially as it will lead to reduced electricity bills, but emission reductions will diminish as excess power will have to be exported, Ó Gallachóir notes. To counter this, increasingly using wind to generate hydrogen fuel must be part of the mix. “Ensuring 24/7 zero-emissions energy supply to data centres” is also required, he says.

Demand for electricity is set to escalate in coming decades not just from large multinationals based in Ireland but also due to data-intensive lifestyles including capturing those special moments on smartphone cameras.

Are there lessons from Covid-19?
Yes, in two respects. It underlines the attractiveness of remote working, not only in ensuring less commuting stress but in helping to reduce emissions, and it has illustrated how cities and towns can switch to active travel, with walkways and safe, user-friendly cycle routes. The inevitable consequence is reduced urban space for cars. However for the modal shift to happen, Ó Gallachóir says, hard choices have to be made.

Is farming about to undergo fundamental redirection?
Probably, because the current system does not deliver on the climate action front, nor does it provide sufficient income for many family farms. Intensive agriculture has all too often compromised water quality and impaired biodiversity.

Ominously, the €100 billion of CAP funds attributed during the period 2014-2020 to climate action had little impact on agricultural emissions, the European Court of Auditors said this week.

The way forward, Ó Gallachóir believes, is income diversification and moving away from high emission activities, especially in beef where viability is an issue anyway for most Irish farmers. Bioenergy production is an obvious alternative as is production of renewable gas through anaerobic digestion.

Rewetting peat soils and exploited bogs has to be part of a new approach to land use that compensates farmers and helps them transition to new income sources including energy crops and forestry where appropriate.

Is all this scaled up climate action a recipe for costly and inconvenient lifestyle changes?
Yes it is will be challenging and politically fraught at times. The initial cost penalties will be sorely felt. But we have a good handle on what is required and new technological solutions will emerge to help us on our way, such as battery storage and deployment of supergrids to distribute power over vast areas beyond national borders.

Ultimately, there will be many benefits beyond doing your/our bit in putting the planet on a better footing. These can be summarised under the heading of improved quality of life and wellbeing.

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