Events refocus minds on climate change and difficult decisions

UN panel report and foundering of wind energy plan brings neglected issue back, writes Harry McGee

Two separate but connected events yesterday conspired to focus minds on an issue that has been comparatively neglected in recent times but should arguably be at the core of every political debate in this country, and elsewhere.

The advice in the report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not mince it words. It calls for a rapid “large-scale transformation” from energy reliant on fossil fuels to that based on renewables. The panel says such as switch is necessary to contain global warning at 2 degrees Celsius.

Former president Mary Robinson, who has established her own foundation on climate justice, put it succinctly (and dramatically) this morning when she said "we have 20 years to save the world".

Around the same time, the Government announced that an ambitious (and controversial) plan to export wind energy from the midlands to Britain had foundered.


The Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte yesterday conceded that the plan had been timed out because of uncertainty of which of the Irish or British governments would bear certain costs. and what he described as an internal debate over the future of energy policy in Britain that had not yet concluded.

The upshot is that plans by three companies - Element Power, Mainstream and Bord na Mona - have been becalmed, if you excuse the pun. Between them they would have built 1,000 turbines in five counties in the midlands, mostly on cutaway bog. In all some 3 gigawatts of energy would have been capable of being transferred into the British grid via the new interconnector between Ireland and Wales.

At a stroke, the decision meant that not only were the plans jettisoned, but one of the big issues driving the local election campaigns in rural Ireland was also sidelined. There has been strong local opposition to the erection of what amounts to an army of 40 metre plus metre windmills, enough to preoccupy Don Quixote for a lifetime.

And in recent weeks it had become a live campaign issue, placing substantial pressure on candidates for the Government parties. Indeed, several Government TDs and Senators living in affected constituencies have made no secret of the fact that they have opposed the plans.

And that in turn feeds into a wider - i.e. nationwide - debate about the downsides of pursuing renewable energy policies. They involve windmills - and lots of them - and they will also involved massive improvements to the national grid to adapt them for renewable sources of energy - and that energy tends to come from the most geographically far-flung, and least populated, regions.

With that has come plans for new high voltage lines, which will require many hundreds of pylons to be erected. That plan has separately spawned a well-organised protest with dozens of groups campaigning across the country. Indeed, one of the most prominent anti-pylon protestors, Kieran Hartley has been selected as a Fianna Fáil candidate in the European elections.

Politicians tend to seek the path of least resistance when implementing unpalatable policy decisions. However, it is stretching it a little to suggest that yesterday’s decision to abandon the plan was actuated by short-term electoral considerations. The Government was already into this project too deep and too far to try to swim back. But that said, it will help that at least some of the heat has been removed.

The old political phrase 'all politics is local' sounds grand and dandy until you see how it is manifested in real life. It's not just about knowing the people and the issues. It depends on your stance. And for most politicians it is siding with the NIMBYists in almost all cases. My colleague Kitty Holland (and Michael Brennan in The Sunday Business Post) both had very good pieces over the past few days on how the 'Traveller' card has been played by local candidates.

That said, there are aesthetic and health considerations that need to be taken into account when debating renewable energy and pylons. The visual aspects have been neglected and it’s one thing having some windmills in your area and another thing having your entire region blighted by an army of them.

That debate is not confined to Ireland. I was in Cornwall last week and in the north of that country on the south-west corner of England, there is a massive row over a plan to erect windmills across a picturesque valley. There are already hundreds of windmills in Cornwall and a rake of solar farms (solar panels stretching across the landscape as far as the eye can see). And the argument being used by those opposing the new development is that enough is enough.

Will windmills and pylons still be a local and European election issue here in Ireland now that the project has been abandoned? Yes, if not quite with the same intensity.