Transport tensions a key obstacle to decarbonising Ireland

Report acknowledges ‘deep uncertainties’ about how to tackle climate change

Transport policy needs to be more adaptive and collaborative to overcome evident fragmentation, report finds. Photograph: Eric Luke

Transport policy needs to be more adaptive and collaborative to overcome evident fragmentation, report finds. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The extent to which climate policy will have to radically change in line with the Government’s declared intention to scale up ambition in tackling climate disruption has been spelled out by the National Economic and Social Council.

The council warns in two reports noted by the Cabinet this week that decarbonising transport, in particular, will be hugely challenging as the Irish system is dominated by carbon-intensive vehicles, including private cars. Difficulties have been compounded by “conflicts between public and private transport” and by differing needs in urban and rural areas.

One report, A Climate Change Policy: Getting the Process Right, underlines how Ireland is at a critical juncture in developing a response to climate change and transitioning to a low-carbon economy, where there are “few fully-known, easy or cheap actions to significantly reduce carbon emissions”.

“National and international experience shows that there are deep uncertainties about how to tackle climate change: about which technologies and solutions to adopt, their costs, the willingness of companies, households or individuals to bear these uncertain costs and, overall, uncertainty about how to achieve such a wide-ranging systemic transition to a low-carbon future,” it says.

A separate report by Dr Laura Devaney and Dr Diarmuid Torney of the DCU school of law and government illustrates how these uncertainties and challenges affect transport.

“Ireland has struggled to decarbonise the transport sector. Emissions fell during the recession but have grown significantly since. The warnings from climate scientists are clear and urgent, and we cannot continue to kick the can down the road. We need to tackle transport emissions head on,” Dr Torney said.

Transport tensions

The report finds Irish transport is pulled in many different directions. “There are tensions between public and private actors, rural and urban divides, and special interests play a strong role,” Dr Torney said.

"The warnings from climate scientists are clear and urgent, and we cannot continue to kick the can down the road. We need to tackle transport emissions head on."

A low-carbon transition is not yet a priority, while the governing system for transport is deeply fragmented: “Authority is spread among a range of institutions with often competing perspectives and priorities.”

Transport policy needs to be more adaptive and collaborative to overcome evident fragmentation, it finds.

Achieving a low-carbon transport system will not be either easy or cheap

“We need to provide more support to bottom-up initiatives, acknowledging differences between transport solutions in rural and urban areas and between passenger versus freight transport,” Dr Torney said.

To decarbonise transport, it says central government needs to provide low-carbon leadership, and “transport actors should be given a statutory mandate to deliver on low-carbon transition”.

It outlines remedies including multi-modal transport hubs, where different travel options such as rail, bus and light rail are clustered together; and deployment of taskforces “and more deliberative forums”.

Consensus

People working in the sector and experts agree on what is needed: a mobility system that is more effective and less polluting, said the council’s director, Dr Rory O’Donnell.

“Achieving a low-carbon transport system will not be either easy or cheap. To be truly ambitious about climate change, we need to grapple with, not gloss over, this uncertainty and complexity.”

The council welcomed the Government’s approach based on the successful action plan for jobs but said it would need to be expanded to create “a process that gives agencies, enterprises and civil society the power to explore and cost new solutions which work in specific contexts”.

“As agencies, companies or local groups learn about the potential of new ideas, Government must then organise the pooling of this knowledge and its inclusion into an ever more ambitious and just national climate policy,’’ Dr O’Donnell said.

The council backs the creation of a climate action implementation board overseen by the Department of the Taoiseach.

“Through it government could both check implementation and allow sectoral agencies and actors to explore and test new solutions,” he said.