Thursday’s long-awaited Climate Action Plan sets out a momentous, detailed vision for Ireland’s transformation to sustainability.
The announced measures and sectoral targets will be extremely challenging to meet and will require every person and business to play a part. But if achieved, Ireland will reduce its dependence on fossil fuels faster than any country has transitioned in such a timeframe.
The doubling of decarbonisation ambition requires a doubling of effort, and the plan presents a range of measures to achieve this. Many measures will be familiar, and involve a scaling up of solutions set out in the 2019 Climate Action Plan. These include greater vehicle electrification and far more renewable electricity, especially offshore wind and solar photovoltaics.
The plan also contains a new and wide-ranging set of solutions, particularly focusing on transport and heat decarbonisation, which together accounted for 45 per cent of emissions in 2019. These include a renewable heat obligation on businesses, loans to help finance the cost of home retrofits, district heating schemes, and a reduction in the use – and carbon intensity – of cement.
The cost of these measures will pay society back in many ways, through fuel savings, energy security and quality of life. Though the headline €125 billion cost of the plan is staggering, only €45 billion is additional to what would be spent without any climate action, which is about 2 per cent of our modified Gross National Income.
Quality of life
This is not simply money thrown away: it is investment which will enhance quality of life. Much of this additional expenditure will improve the building fabric of homes, for example. Energy efficiency brings multiple benefits – improved health and comfort, lower air pollution (which causes 1,400 premature deaths each year) and higher home values.
It will also dramatically reduce fossil fuel import bills, which nationally cost us about €5 billion each year. Instead, this money will be spent on producing indigenous renewable energy, which will support jobs and create resilience to shocks in fossil fuel supply.
Yet still, €45 billion in investment over this decade amounts to €2,500 per household a year, which will be out of reach for many. Getting the balance of “who pays” right – how much of this will be financed by the public purse, and how much will be met by people and businesses – will be key to this plan’s success.
At the same time, however, the plan shies away from firming up some of the transformational changes needed to meet our climate targets this decade. Announced sectoral targets will not deliver the full emissions savings required to reduce emissions by 51 per cent in 2030 relative to 2018.
Acknowledging that additional measures will be needed, the plan builds in “unallocated” emissions savings. These are technically or societally more challenging to meet, such as diversifying the agriculture sector, bringing about fundamental shifts in consumer demand and consumption practices, or deploying technologies like carbon capture and storage or hydrogen which are now in their infancy.
This means that over the next year, when carbon budgets will be translated into firm, legally binding emissions ceilings for each sector, the Government has to grapple with the huge challenge of finalising and agreeing the efforts required from each sector.
It is a justifiable strategy – technology is changing at such a rapid pace that we don’t know what solutions lie around the corner. Also, society will need time to come on board with the structural changes required.
But it is also a risky strategy as hoped-for technological progress is often unfulfilled and, even when it does deliver, targets for technology adoption are often not met by users. For example, the electric vehicle target from the last Green Party government was to have 200,000 vehicles on the road last year, when only 41,000 are on the road now.
Similarly in agriculture, reliance on the development and widespread adoption of breakthrough technologies like methane-inhibiting feed to meet mitigation targets is a gamble. Though there are political commitments to maintain a stable herd size despite ambitious decarbonisation targets, previous hopes that efficiencies and new technologies would offset growing production have not come to pass, meaning that emissions from the sector grew by nearly 10 per cent in the past decade, while emissions from all other sectors fell by 13 per cent.
This suggests that either breakthroughs in technologies which have not yet been developed will be needed or, as the plan alludes, to allowing time for the sector to develop alternative uses of our land to generate farm income, rolling back some of the rapid growth in the herd size over the past decade. This debate is sure to continue over the next year.
For this plan to be achievable the Government will need to win hearts and minds. People and businesses will have to accept the scale of the transformation necessary. Learning from the successful rollout of Covid-19 vaccines and compliance with lockdowns, we know that getting public buy-in requires politicians to lead by example, to get the messaging right, for solutions to be transparent, science-backed and fair.
There are welcome measures in the plan in this regard – that new public fleet cars should be electric where possible and fossil fuels will be phased out of heating public buildings. There is also attention to prioritising social housing and lower income households for retrofits, and a strong focus on the Just Transition.
Dr Hannah Daly is a lecturer in sustainable energy at University College Cork, ERI and MaREI Centre