Eamon Ryan: By 2030 the only new cars will be electric

Interview: Cycle lanes, rail, 15-minute cities, forests, bogs and wind farms are Minister’s passions

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan: “Can we get a whole generation of young people and pay them better to look after our land?” Photograph: Alan Betson

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan: “Can we get a whole generation of young people and pay them better to look after our land?” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

With every Eamon Ryan interview you are reminded of the pronouncement of Lincoln Steffens returning from Soviet Russia in 1919. “I have seen the future and it works.”

For as long as Ryan has been in public life he has been talking up the way life will be better when fossil fuels and the addiction to cars are ditched, replaced by a lifestyle that can be sustained by the Earth.

Eleven years ago, in March 2009, Ryan visited a San Francisco factory where an exciting new electric car, as yet unproven, with a range of 400km was being built.

Its name was Tesla.

There, he visited the headquarters of technology company Cisco to witness executives talking to colleagues back in Galway using a teleconference system called “telepresence”.

It was as if the people from Galway were in the same room. Its big selling point was that if the technology became a normal part of work then wasteful commuting could be cut down

It was slightly before its time. Today, we call such meetings Zoom.

Ryan, then minister for communications and energy, enthused about both, forecasting, in the face of doubters, that they would be widely embraced quickly.

Well, they have. But it has taken over a decade – and a gigantic global pandemic caused by the Covid-19 crisis – for both technologies to become settled.

Now Ryan is Minister for Transport, Environment, Climate Change and Communications in a government that must cut greenhouse gases by over 50 per cent – or 7 per cent per annum – over the next decade.

That cut is enormous. There are no two ways about it. If those targets are met then it will mean drastic changes in people’s lives, in their work, how they travel and where they live.

Once more, the Green Party leader sets out a vision of a radically changed Ireland. One that will be opposed. This time, though, he has a huge ministry with a multi-billion-euro budget behind him.

Speaking in his offices in the Department of Transport off Leeson Street, Ryan lays out his ideas in considerable detail – the kind of society, the kind of lifestyle that will emerge, if those targets are to be met.

First, there is the need to halve Ireland’s annual emissions of 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide down to 30 million.

The first “big chunks” will come from the end of Moneypoint’s coal-powered power station and Bord na Móna’s peat-fired plants. Bord na Móna will stop taking peat out for horticulture and gardens, too.

Meanwhile, half a million Irish homes will be retrofitted to improve their BER ratings over the next decade to make them warmer and cheaper to heat – a staggering share of the national housing stock.

Ryan has €250 million to spend on this next year on social housing, lower-income housing and then private homes. But it will take two or three years to get it fully up and running.

New jobs

First, the State must invest in apprenticeships to train people up, which will create thousands of new jobs, but it must deliver too on long-term payment plans for those who are helped.

He runs through the portfolio, totting up 26 million tonnes of CO2 savings quickly as he goes: four million tonnes from Moneypoint; four million tonnes from Bord na Móna closures; eight million from more efficient industry. Four million more tonnes will be required from agriculture; six million from transport.

So what of agriculture? Fianna Fáil Minister Charlie McConalogue launched a new plan last week which provided for zero reduction in the national herd. How will they get reductions in the biggest emitting sector without touching the herd?

Ryan says McConalogue’s plan is an old one and that will be superseded next year by a plan that will result in a smaller national herd.

“We have to double the ambition. Agriculture can’t be absolved and cannot be an opt-out . . . We are going to do significantly more and Charlie McConalogue knows that. The idea of pumping up the volume and massive expansion of the herd makes no sense.

“It does make sense to move to a less intensive system of farming and have a smaller herd.”

In turn, farmers will get paid for the ecological services that they provide in future. This may be inevitable and required, but it will not be popular in an industry fearful of change.

“The key question is can we get a higher income? Can we get a whole generation of young people and pay them better to look after our land?” he says.

“It is a very different vision, a move away from intensification to a sustainable system” where Common Agriculture Policy payments will increasingly support ecological protection and biodiversity.

Allied to that, Ryan says that 140,000 hectares of bog throughout the State will be re-wetted within a decade, simply by removing the drains. They will become a carbon sink.

The first Bord na Móna project to re-wet 33,000 hectares starts soon.

If there are smaller, less-intensively operated farms, then there will also be far more forestry. Today, just over a tenth of the State (770,000 hectares) is planted.

Carbon storage

Ryan wants that increased to 30 per cent by the second half of the century. That means planting 20,000 hectares of new trees each year – a multiple of what happens today.

Equally, that does not mean more Sitka spruce on bog or mountains: “We can’t put forests where we have put them before on peatlands, as we need to restore the bogs for carbon storage.

“We can’t just surround counties in deep dark coniferous woods and cut off communities,” he says. Instead, a new way of doing things that ensures that forests help biodiversity, not kill it, is needed.

Instead, new forests will be planted on better land, and include deciduous trees. There’s also a plan to encourage farms to devote a hectare to tree-planting and wild flowers.

Meanwhile, changing transport habits, he admits, will not be easy, and will take time. Part of the solution, but only part of it, will come from electric cars and e-scooters.

Part of it will come if Covid-19 marks a permanent shift to more home-working. Part of it, too, will come from better, more plentiful public transport, and more cycling and walking.

So what’s going to be different by 2030? Transport can only be tackled if the State plans better. Housing and everything else must be led by transport, not the other way round.

“It only works when you have transport-led development,” he says, “a commitment to compact development, where life is in the centre of cities and towns, where you have the ‘15-minute city’.

“Everything is close by and I don’t need a car and if I do need one I can get it from a car-sharing system. Investment will be in public and active travel, rather than roads.”

On electric cars, Ryan believes the 2020s will be the decade of change: “I have been talking about this for 10 years but we are on the cusp of a real transformation.

“By the end of this decade there won’t be new cars other than electric. It’s game over for fossil fuel,” says the Green Party leader, with a degree of relish.

Rural Ireland, often suspicious of the Greens, must get more public transport and ride-sharing. That could include, he suggests, letting postal vans in places.

“What’s going to come out of Covid changes is that not that many people will be commuting long-distance from rural Ireland. We will have enterprise hubs in towns and villages throughout,” he says.

High-speed broadband will be a reality in every home within five years: “It’s not all about heading to the big city but also about bringing life back into rural town.”

Cities outside of Dublin – Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway – need Luas-style trams or more accurately “electric urban trains” which will radically alter where people want to live.

In Waterford, the city’s station is being moved up the quays closer to the city, with a new foot and cycling and public transport bridge bringing commuters and visitors straight into the heart of the city centre.

“In Galway we will fast-track the twin tracking from Athenry to Galway. That will allow us upgrade Oranmore and Ardaun and start building new development in Galway around [stations].

“In Cork, I am saying that we build now. We can upgrade the Midleton to Mallow and have eight stations along the line at Glounthaune, Carrigtuohill, Tivoli, Kent Station, Blarney, Monard, and Mallow.

“If you build a new station at Tivoli you can put in 10,000 people within walking distance of Patrick Street on a stunning location near the river with an electric rail train to the centre.”

In Limerick, he wants to open the rail line to Foynes as a port and freight line, but include stations for commuters at Patrickswell and Adare and at Crescent shopping centre.

“You could use Ballysimon on the east side, as well as Limerick Junction and Nenagh, with an upgraded station in Castleconnell and Annacotty, ” he declares.

Railway systems

“On the Limerick to Ennis line, a railway station can be built at Moyross, at Six Mile Bridge and at Shannon,” he says. But is the funding available? Yes, he replies.

The State is spending €2 billion to €3 billion per year on transport infrastructure. “Let’s put it into these railway systems and walking and cycling. In Limerick, just 3 per cent live in the historic core. If those changes are made it will revive Limerick and make it a greater city than it is.”

In Dublin, he sees the changes in Dún Laoghaire, where the council took one lane from motorists and gave it to cyclists, being used all over the city.

Bus Connects, which bids to speed up bus journeys in the capital, is just as much about cycling as it is about buses: “You could easily call it the cycling project,” he says

In Rathmines in Dublin, for example, Bus Connects will make it a community again, not just a road used by cars, with bicycle lanes and public transport getting priority: “That will make it safer for kids going to school,” he says.

A third of the morning rush-hour is caused by “us driving our kids to school. How much better [that would be] on a bike, or walking, or on a bus”.

More greenways will be created, too, on the back of successful ones in Waterford and elsewhere. The Bord Pleanála decision that cleared the way for the South Kerry Greenway will help others, such as the Galway-Clifden greenway that have also run into planning difficulties.

“Greenways are not just for tourism, they are for local people, in my opinion,” he says. “The [proposed] greenway from Moycullen into Galway [8km], on electric bikes is utterly commutable.

“The route will come in by Corrib village and through NUIG down Eglington Canal and then go down to O’Brien’s Bridge. It will then go out to Salthill and right around the coast to Barna and loop right back up to Moycullen . . .

Offshore wind

“It’s not just for tourists, it’s for people who live in Knocknacarra or Moycullen to get into Galway city,” he says.

Meanwhile, another big change in the landscape in 2030 will be the number of offshore wind farms. In a decade, and certainly within 20 years, there will be few places in Ireland where people will look out to sea and see no turbines. Offshore wind provides substantially more energy than turbines located on land.

“My target is to produce 30 GigaWatts of power [about six times the energy needs of the State] around the coast. “We have a competitive advantage in Ireland,” he says. “We have a sea area 10 times our land areas and some of the best winds in the world.”

That means Ireland will be able to export energy at a profit. It will start late next year with auctions for wind power companies to build on shallow banks off the coast of Dublin.

There will be later auctions for the Celtic Sea and then for the western coast. The challenge in the Atlantic waters is that the ocean is very deep. However, Ryan points out that floating turbines are already on the market and are already becoming less expensive.

How will huge quantities of such irregular and hard-to-predict wind energy be stored? Ryan says better interconnectors to the North, the UK and France will help, as will hydrogen storage.

Turbines off the west coast will need good ports with deep water and better access, so the ports of Foynes, Killybegs and Cork will need work to accommodate traffic.

His core argument is that an annual 7 per cent reduction in emissions will result in radical change in how people live their lives. “It will be transformative,” says Ryan.

“This is what people are now seeing when they wake. It is strange that in these Covid times, and all the bad things with it, people are realising how important their environment is and, for the first time, are beginning to appreciate and value it.”