The heat is on: time running out to achieve emissions cuts


ANALYSIS:The NESC report due out today predicts we will meet our 2020 EU emissions targets, writes HARRY McGEE

THE GOVERNMENT’S climate change policies are geared towards the EU target of reducing emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020.

For Ireland to achieve this, it had to set the bar very high. There is a recession now, but 1990 was pre-boom and the economy has not regressed to anywhere near those lower levels of activity.

That huge drop needs to take place in the non emissions-trading areas (industry, energy, pharma) of the economy – agriculture, transport and buildings.

Thus, some very ambitious targets: a 20 per cent drop in energy costs for buildings through energy efficiency measures; some 40 per cent of Ireland’s energy, and 12 per cent of heat, to be from renewable sources; and 10 per cent of power-generation for vehicles to be renewable.

That last means more biofuels and more electric vehicles (EVs). The current policy has it that 10 per cent (or 200,000) of the car fleet will be EVs in eight years’ time (an impossibility).

Environmental groups have long argued that we should follow the lead of the UK and introduce climate change legislation to give statutory footing to all the targets. Some have criticised Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan for delaying its introduction.

Instead his department set out a timelined “road map” for achieving the targets, with heads of the Bill promised at the end of the year. In retrospect, it was a sensible and realistic approach. One of the elements was a report by the Government’s strategic think tank, the National Economic and Social Council (NESC), on how climate change policy can be developed. It is to be published today.

The report notes that not all of the ambitious policies have been put in place yet (it could have added that some that have are just ambling along). Also, the economic crisis will constrain measures – little money to invest in public transport, no grants to encourage home retrofits.

The NESC report does not shy away from the challenges but neither does it say they are insuperable. It also argues that some carbon-reduction measures could provide jobs, increasing domestic demand and making Ireland more competitive.

Its conclusion: it will be difficult but the targets can be achieved, and surpassed, without resorting to buying carbon credits.

Early on, the report identifies what should be the central focus of policy: a drive to increase energy efficiency in buildings.

The potential is obvious. Low building standards have meant the thermal efficiency of Irish homes is low; many are also dependent on oil. On average, they emit 47 per cent more carbon dioxide than those in the UK. The report notes stricter rules on building introduced since 2002 have not been complied with.

The Government wants one million homes retrofitted by 2020, but current policies will not achieve anything like that. The grant scheme is being phased out, to be replaced by a ‘pay as you save’ scheme in 2014. But even now the take-up is low.

“There has been a slowdown in retrofit activity thus far in 2012. This is a real concern and shows that there is an urgent need to bring forward new measures.” Not only will the rate of uptake need to increase from 60,000 to 100,000 homes a year but, the NESC argues, the retrofit needs to be deeper, from an average of €3,000 per home to €8,000.

Even at €3,000, most owners are reluctant to dig into savings or take out loans to achieve long-term savings. Moreover, a third of housing in Ireland is rented. As tenants pay for energy, there is no incentive for the landlord to retrofit.

It approves of the policy of pay-as-you-save (paying for retrofitting bills over a long period through utility bills) but refers to the reluctance of homeowners to take on extra debt, and the problem utility companies will have in raising the billions needed to kick-start it.

NESC also questions whether the Department of Energy has the resources to meet this challenge.

It is simpler in transport. The 10 per cent renewable target can be met by increasing the biofuels obligation (the biofuels mix in all fuel) from 4 per cent to 10 per cent. EVs do no really feature, as the take-up has been paltry.

Agriculture emissions are large because of beef and dairy farming. They comprise 30 per cent of non-Emissions Trading System (ETS) emissions, compared to an EU average of 9 per cent. With the Food Harvest 2020 policy, the projections are that emissions will actually increase. The NESC accepts this but argues there can be “wins” using new technology and more efficient methods.

Some NGOs will argue the report should have been harder hitting. Politically, it is difficult to see how the Government will find the resources or the political will to effect such a sea change.