Ireland is facing into a decade when reducing reliance on the car and changing how homes are heated are necessary to wean the country off fossil fuels.
Against this backdrop, the revised National Development Plan will facilitate big changes in how the economy operates, how the construction sector redirects itself – especially in housebuilding, and how people and goods move around.
The plan includes new mechanisms for evaluating both carbon impact and pollution risk – by applying “environmental scoring” to projects. In effect, it acknowledges there is a carbon cost with all development which has to be delivered as sustainably as possible.
But unresolved issues on competing priorities – building roads and tipping the balance in favour of public transport – persist, and there is a risk that ambitious climate commitments will soon become unrealisable.
Separately, delivery within a reasonable time period remains the biggest issue around State-funded projects when the planning system is not fit for purpose and inadequately resourced. Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has incorporated elements to ensure better delivery backed by independent review.
Big road projects
If climate targets are to be met, much will depend on “what happens, when”, according to Friends of the Earth director Oisín Coghlan. Will BusConnects and cycling/walking infrastructure, for example, come before big road projects?
Transport is where emissions are rising fastest. Any wrong decision on transport infrastructure, Coghlan believes, could derail overall national climate targets, especially when there other huge challenges – in agriculture, and in power generation, where increasing electricity demand and weaknesses in grid infrastructure mean reliance on fossil fuels to fill gaps will continue longer than anticipated.
Coghlan says meeting the decarbonising challenge has to mean using roads less often, regardless of whether those big road projects are proceeded with or not. That requires congestion charges, increased tolling and higher parking charges penalising urban drivers but not rural dwellers – “disincentives” that, arguably, should have been in place before workers return to workplaces post-Covid.
Fundamentally, “we have not resolved the big choices we have to make. They have just confirmed terms of engagement,” says Coghlan. Major road projects are on the list alongside a requirement for 2:1 investment in favour of public transport including cycling/walking options.
There are many unanswered questions. Will 2:1 apply for the lifetime of this Government? How transparent will new climate impact assessments be? Producing them at the last minute as projects are announced, as was done previously, is unacceptable.
“We cannot build all these roads and hope EVs will do the [decarbonising ]job for us,” Coghlan adds.
He suggests that the kind of step change needed is for a senior Minister to acknowledge that Ireland cannot proceed with a particular road project for climate reasons.
For the construction sector, the stakes could not be higher. As Annette Hughes of EY Ireland flagged: "The NDP, the Housing for All Plan and the National Retrofitting Programme are entirely dependent on the industry being able to deliver." It must significantly improve its productivity and change the way it works – while gearing up to ensure it has the skills base to do so.
If that takes too long, public projects with potential to deliver the biggest emission cuts will inevitably be backloaded towards the end of the decade at best, so meeting the key commitment to halve emissions by 2030 becomes unlikely. Already, the absence of a timeline for completion of Metrolink, which would do a lot of heavy lifting on transport emissions, means it is downgraded and probably pushed into the 2030s.
Minister for Climate and Transport Eamon Ryan insisted the plan is transformative, and placed great emphasis on interlinking elements. These included better compact development (15-minute cities, denser housing close to light rail and Dart lines), more balanced regional development and low-carbon development.
This, he underlined, would be in an economy where renewable energy use is scaled up, with in excess of 80 per cent of renewables routinely accommodated on the grid. Rail for commuters in major urban areas and for freight distribution throughout the country would play its part. This needs to pursued without the prohibitive costs and lack-of-use problems of the past.
The Green Party leader stressed “not every road project is guaranteed”. He is probably banking on discipline being imposed by the combination of upcoming carbon budgets and a revised national climate action plan – reinforced by legally binding targets and emission ceilings to ensure a 51 per cent emissions reduction by 2030. In short, that this will curtail carbon-intensive projects in the transport and construction sectors, and curtail road investment.