Ireland’s climate revolution must start with transport

A complete overhaul of the sector is vital to securing a low-carbon future

The climate crisis has gained unprecedented prominence in Irish politics, media and society in recent months. This is not before time, but better late than never. Ireland is at a critical juncture in developing a response to climate change and transitioning to a low-carbon economy.

The way we govern can enable or constrain decarbonisation across the economy and society. At present, decision-making structures are holding back the transport sector in particular.

The warnings from climate scientists are clear and urgent. Stark warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last October highlight the risks involved if we fail to limit global heating, as well as the scale of the challenge facing humanity to transition to a climate safe future.

Government needs to provide low-carbon leadership. This will signal a new direction of travel to investors, consumers and citizens

Young people will take to the streets again today to put pressure on Government to tackle this crisis that poses a grave threat to their future. Politicians of various hues canvassing in the European and local elections report that climate change is being raised on the doorsteps. Momentum for necessary climate action is growing.


Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton is currently finalising his all of government plan for climate disruption. Leaked drafts suggest that it will incorporate many of the recommendations of the landmark Oireachtas committee report on climate action released in March, which in turn built on the recommendations of the Citizens’ Assembly held in 2017.

Nobody claims Ireland’s transition to a climate safe future will be cheap or easy. If it were, we would have done it long ago. But what is beyond doubt is that it is necessary and achievable.

The agriculture sector gets its fair share of attention, but Ireland has also struggled to decarbonise transport. Emissions from this sector fell during the recession but have grown significantly since and remain responsible for approximately 20 per cent of our national emissions.

Decarbonising transport is particularly challenging. The sector is pulled in many different directions. There are tensions between public and private actors in charge of different transport options, rural and urban divides, and special interests play a strong role. Delivering transport also interacts in complex ways with broader policy systems, including where we locate our housing, schools, hospitals and other facilities.

Transport system

Low-carbon transition is not yet a priority in transport. Contestation between different players has shaped the development of a carbon-intensive transport system to date. There is also disagreement over what low-carbon transition might entail and across different elements of the transport sector, such as between passenger and freight transport. Many solutions are not straightforward, and there can be limited consensus even within the sector as to the best way forward.

Compounding these challenges, our system of transport decision-making is deeply fragmented. Authority is spread among multiple institutions whose mandates often have not kept pace with the urgency of the climate crisis.

In a report published this week by the National Economic and Social Council, we make a number of recommendations to facilitate low-carbon transition in Irish transport.

First, we need to acknowledge complexities within transport. Policy needs to be more adaptive and collaborative, with input from a diverse range of public, private and civil society actors whose voices are not sufficiently heard. Stakeholder engagement is essential to enhance transparency, legitimacy and trust in decision-making, and generate better outcomes.

Bottom-up approaches to low-carbon transport need to be supported. These can take into account geographical and technical variations and the rural-urban divide that results in different transport solutions and investment required in different areas.

We also need to understand transport as a social practice. This means that we consider the socio-cultural, technical and governance forces that shape our practices of travel and mobility choices. Designing and implementing appropriate combinations of these interventions will ensure that we have the right incentives, options and new social norms to make low-carbon transport easy to choose.

Second, we need to challenge institutional priorities. Government needs to provide low-carbon leadership. This will signal a new direction of travel to investors, consumers and citizens. The mandates of transport governance actors should be revised to include a statutory commitment to prioritise low-carbon development.

Freight transport

Transport policy should be brought into line with international sustainable mobility thinking that promotes an “Avoid, Shift, Improve” framework for both passenger and freight transport. This would more clearly emphasise a hierarchy that focuses on reducing journeys in the first place, transitioning to public transport, walking and cycling and, finally, improving vehicle efficiencies.

The public sector should lead by example. This could include not just central government but also, for example, local authorities switching fleets to electrified alternatives. The Civil Service should give greater priority to low-carbon transition in their hiring, promotion and travel schemes.

Third, we need to change who shapes transport outcomes. A variety of institutional remedies can help to overcome tensions and challenges. These include focused taskforces to combine insights from public, private, academic and civil society actors around specific transport challenges.

Multi-modal hubs that connect transport options also hold promise for decarbonising Irish passenger transport, along with enhanced (re)distribution hubs to decarbonise freight.

Forums for peer learning can enable villages, towns and cities across Ireland to learn from each other to scale up innovative low-carbon transport solutions. Deliberative forums for stakeholder and citizen participation can enhance transparency and moderate the impact of lobbying by special interests.

Public information offices should be established, with structured citizen assembly processes and town-hall-style meetings. None of these by themselves are a silver bullet, but together they can provide a governance framework that adequately addresses the climate crisis.

We cannot continue to kick the can down the road. We need to tackle Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions head on. The recent declaration of a “climate emergency” made international headlines, but it will be meaningless if not backed up by concrete action. Transport would be a good place to start.

Dr Laura Devaney and Dr Diarmuid Torney work in the school of law and government at Dublin City University