Rationing fossil fuels among hard choices Government needs to make, committee told

Academics say carbon budgets recommended do not go far enough to achieve 7% reduction

1.39 million households with one car or more were responsible for a 18 per cent of emissions, committee told

The Government needs to make immediate hard choices such as rationing fossil fuels, stopping forest and peat harvesting, cutting the national herd and restricting car traffic into cities if it wants to meet its own targets on emissions reductions, climate change experts have told an Oireachtas committee.

The academics also argued that the carbon budgets recommended by the Climate Change Advisory Committee (CCAC) do not go far enough to achieve the 7 per cent annual reductions contained in the Programme for Government, or for Ireland to meet its obligations under the Paris Accord to limit the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Prof Barry McMullin and Paul Price of DCU, John Sweeney, emeritus professor at Maynooth University, and Prof Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester appeared before the all-party Committee on Environment and Climate Change to discuss the Government’s proposed carbon budgets.

All of them expressed differences with the CCAC saying the reductions proposed were not ambitious enough. There was also criticism of its recommendation to backload reductions to the latter part of the decade.


The CCAC has recommended that the annual reduction in emissions for the first five-year carbon budget between 2021 and 2025 should be set at 4.8 per cent with a higher annual reduction of 8.3 per cent for the second budget, which will run from 2026 to 2030.

Committee chair Brian Leddin said that UCC professor Briain Ó Gallachóir of the CCAC had already explained the rationale for the lower reduction targets in the first carbon budget and had challenged anyone to come up with higher targets in the first five-year period.

Prof McMullin said he was implicitly saying faster reductions were required in both periods than those proposed by the council and achieving that could include the rationing of fossil fuels.

“I would like (reductions of) 8 per cent per year over that period,” he said.

He said the only way to do that would be to do less.

“My answer is you place an upstream limit on the (use) of fossil fuels into the Irish economy, You ration it out in a way that protects fairness and justice.”

He said that individuals, households, enterprises and State agencies would have to figure out how they can best pursue their own goals but within stringent annual limits of fossil fuel availability.

Prof Sweeney agreed that rationing would be needed in energy and also said agriculture emissions needed to be urgently tackled.

“In the short term we need a commitment to reduce the national herd and reduce methane by 3 per cent per year on a short term basis. We need to put that into practice.”

He also said there needed to be a ban on artificial insemination. He added that overall nitrogen use in Ireland should be reduced to 325,000 tonnes by 2025 and not by 2030.

Prof Anderson said Ireland had shown no sign of emissions reductions since 1990 despite being much better placed than most other countries. He said emissions per capita in the State were 17 per cent above the EU average and ten times higher per per person than in Africa.

Only 11 percent of energy in Ireland came from renewable sources, he added. Like Prof McMullen he also queried why two major emitters - aviation and shipping - were not included in the calculations.

“There is no easy way out of the dilemma rich high emitting nations now find themselves in. We are here precisely because we have for 30 years been unprepared to face the climate challenges with honesty and integrity,” he said.


Fine Gael Deputy Richard Bruton challenged the criticisms that the CCAC had not gone far enough and also asked if the proposal to ration fossil fuels was realistic.

He said the reduction levels suggested by Prof McMullen and Prof Anderson were “pretty aggressive” in a context where the CCAC’s recommendations were already being regarded by politicians as an impossible task.

“We don’t have unfettered capacity to implement changes such as the rationing as described. You would have to be conscious of the reaction of the Maillot Jaune (Yellow Vest protesters in France) to much more modest proposals (on fuel prices).”

He said the CCAC was giving politicians the best shot to make real inroads. Introducing “top-down” rationing of fossil fuel to business and homes not “practical politics”, he argued.

Prof Anderson replied if the political system said it was aiming to limit global temperature rise to 3 to 5 degrees Celsius that would be an honest position and people would have to live by that. But at the same time, one could “not pretend we are delivering 1.5 per cent or 2 per cent.”

Similarly, Prof McMullin said there was a need to communicate the scale of the challenge and downplaying it, or pretending there was a choice, did not help.

He said it was politically risky to propose hard choices like rationing and accepted such policies would be unpalatable in the short term and have impacts.

He continued by saying if Ireland could not do that with the relative wealth of the State “the idea we will persuade the bigger countries (to do likewise) is clearly unrealistic.”

“We have to grasp the nettle of reconciling our preferences for an easier transition given our comfortable lifestyle today. As against that we don’t have the time and we have responsibilities to our children and for future generations and poor and vulnerable people around the world.”

Prof Sweeney said that 93,244 farms were responsible for 37 per cent of emissions in Ireland, and 1.39 million households with one car or more were responsible for a further 18 per cent. He said emissions in both sectors were expected to actually grow in the next decade under existing measures.

Mr Price told the Committee early action is what counted. He said that “physics is not forgiving” and you would have to cut methane emissions, and stop harvesting of forests and also of bogs, where large quantities of peat continue to be milled for export. These would address what he called “fast losses”.

In his opening statement, Prof Sweeney said he disagreed with backloading the bigger reductions until after 2025.

“The justification for leaving the maximum reduction rates to the second budget period is not warranted under the precautionary principle,” he said.

Professor Sweeney said that with falling afforestation rates and continued agricultural drainage, land use emissions would increase to 7.1 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year, increasing the net total for Ireland.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times