Ireland's climate change plans, which were challenging before Vladimir Putin decided to invade Ukraine, have now been hit side on because of rapidly worsening fuel and food impacts arising from the Ukraine war.
Escalating gas prices over the winter and lack of alternative energy sources mean that the State has already reverted to using more fossil fuels, notably Russian coal deployed in power generation.
With countries now scrambling to reduce reliance on Russia’s oil and gas, it has worsened market volatility.
Soaring food prices and associated food inflation is compounding anxiety – and exposing Ireland’s food security weaknesses. All these uncertainties have landed just as the Government is about to implement its first carbon budget with strict sectoral emission limits.
Living in one of the most fossil-fuel-dependent countries in Europe, requiring the energy equivalent of more than 80 million barrels of oil a year, does not help either.
This week’s turmoil led to calls for emergency measures including bigger cuts to fossil fuel prices; reduced carbon taxes; bringing on stream Shannon LNG terminal; supporting fertiliser purchases; and lifting a ban on commercial peat harvesting.
UK prime minster Boris Johnson believes the West should be given "a climate change pass" to wean off Russian gas supplies. A Irish version risks undermining collective efforts to address a worsening climate crisis, ditching the second most ambitious emissions reduction plan in the world, and increasing reliance on fossil fuels, the biggest contributor to an overheating planet.
But in a strange twist, some politicians, climate activists and energy experts believe current turbulence could prompt a scaling up of investment in the shift to renewable energy, as wartime and stark learnings on energy usage tip the scales in the right direction.
Green Party TD and chairman of the Oireachtas Environment and Climate Action Committee Brian Leddin says the Government – and not just Greens – are coming under pressure. But, critically, there is acceptance "the impetus has to be in the other direction. If not, it will lead to acceleration of the climate crisis", while he says everybody realises burning fossil fuels is "funding a war".
The carbon tax debate was seen off weeks ago, he insists; scrutiny showed it is a very small portion of fuel costs. The idea that the country goes back 70 years to the second World War and stockpiles peat does not stand up, as there are alternative options now in scaling up renewables and retrofitting.
“We have the answers. It’s just a matter of pursing them aggressively, which we are doing,” Leddin adds. Those advocating “climate pass” measures are at a micro level, he says, when most pressure on party leaders in government is to get off fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
There are, however, short-term measures needed to ease impacts on the public and to prepare for next winter when the brunt of the crisis is likely to hit home, according to Friends of the Earth director Oisín Coghlan.
He responded with incredulity when the IFA this week sought reductions in carbon taxes and increased supports for fertiliser use. “The answer to the fossil-fuelled Russian war of aggression on Ukraine is the further intensification of Irish agricultural pollution? C’mon lads get real,” he tweeted.
Actions should go beyond excise reductions, he says, and include free installation of attic insulation for all homes below an income of €100,000 a year; reducing public transport costs, pausing new data-centre connections, rolling out bus connects, ending objections to cycling routes and putting in safe routes to schools.
Leddin believes there are quick wins in transport; less so in heating. He cites research by MaREI energy specialists in UCC which found 37 per cent of emissions in transport come from car journeys of less than 8km – something easily addressed with increased cycling and use of ebikes, provided safe and well-designed networks are put in place.
In a war scenario there is opportunity to pursue actions that might normally take years to implement, "but if we mess up this moment, it could put a safe climate beyond reach," Coghlan warns. And there is no justification for easing emissions ceilings under the five-year carbon budget that the Government has already agreed and submitted to the Oireachtas – given the Climate Change Advisory Council has approved less strenuous limits for early years.
Building the LNG terminal will not make any immediate difference, Coghlan adds. Europe has more than enough LNG facilities to import gas. That includes the UK, which provides all of Ireland’s imported gas through interconnectors. Instead the Government should move away from fossil fuel infrastructure and ramp up investment in wind and solar.
Gas has to be kept in the mix to ensure flexibility in the power system – especially as it as a better alternative to oil and coal, says Prof Lisa Ryan of UCD Energy Institute. She is not convinced by the LNG argument, as it will not cover Ireland's natural gas requirement even if sourced from the US.
The priority should be getting out of oil use, especially in transport, while “pushing us more to renewable energy rather than less”. There will be demand for up to 50 per cent of electricity from gas for sometime, she notes, but grid enhancements to maximise flexibility, combined with reducing demand and increasing wind over time will mean a lot less gas.
High fuel prices bring focus on personal fuel consumption, she acknowledges, but the question is how to bring that around to climate mitigation. She worries about social media rhetoric which suggests there are other more pressing issues and addressing climate change is not a priority. The problem is “there are always bigger things”, Ryan adds, when reducing carbon emissions has to be the over-riding priority.
Pressure on Government
The Greens will come under pressure to water down pledges, while others will seek to advance their own agendas in the face of “the new emergency”, Coghlan says. Its policy of opposing new fossil fuel infrastructure, for instance, is science-based and not ideological as some have claimed. “It’s an evidence-based position, that hasn’t gone away because just because there is a crisis.”
Reopening the programme for government – as called for by two backbench Fine Gael TDs to facilitate Shannon LNG – would be ill-advised, he underlines. It risks bringing everything back on to the table. He doubts if any of the coalition parties would want that.
Some respite looks set to come with biogas. The Ukraine war exposed Ireland's failure to scale up bioenergy, especially biomethane generated using energy crops, farm slurries, crop residues and food waste, according to PJ McCarthy of the Renewable Gas Forum Ireland, but that is about to change.
Biomethane, using anaerobic digesters, is now cheaper than natural gas, while in the EU strategy to end reliance on Russian oil and gas bioenergy gets big backing. The impending announcement of the Government’s renewable heat obligation scheme, however, will be a game-changer as it bridges the funding gap, McCarthy predicts. “This won’t compete with food production.”
“While other renewable gases, such as green hydrogen, need time to scale up and are still two to four times more expensive, biomethane is available and scalable within the coming decades,” McCarthy adds.
One indication of what investment in renewable energy could bring has come from confirmation that wind energy provided 53 per cent of Ireland’s electricity in February, the highest share ever achieved. It was the number-one source of electricity throughout the month, while on February 5th, a new all-Ireland record was set for the amount of wind energy on the system – meeting 85 per cent of demand.
It highlights the importance of wind energy in cutting the price of wholesale electricity: during the windiest periods of the month, wholesale prices were almost €100 cheaper per megawatt-hour (MWh) than during less windy days, at €134.25 per MWh, versus €229.62. More wind means cheaper electricity.
WEI chief executive Noel Cunniffe noted: "The fact that wholesale prices fall when wind energy production is high shows that wind energy will play an increasingly important role in the coming months, mitigating the worst effects of the predicted price increases for consumers due to spiralling fossil fuel import prices."
A snapshot confirming the potential for better days ahead.