We are living in a climate emergency. Let’s start acting like it
It is difficult to detect the sense of urgency to do what it takes to halve our CO2 emissions by 2030
Wind is expected to provide a third of Ireland’s electricity this year, cutting millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions, increasing our energy security and driving down the wholesale price of electricity. Photograph: David Sleator
In October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change told us we had 12 years to keep global heating to a maximum of 1.5 Celsius. Beyond that, the lives of hundreds of millions of people will be vulnerable to drought, floods and extreme heat. Many will be forced to leave their homes as refugees.
Today, we have 11 years left and, though the Dáil declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in May, it is still difficult to detect the sense of urgency to do whatever it takes to halve our emissions by 2030.
Proof of this came in the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent 2018 greenhouse gas-emissions report which showed that last year our CO2 emissions dropped by only 0.2 per cent.
Vexatious objections must be tackled, and the judicial review process streamlined
Importantly, emissions would have risen were it not for the contribution made by wind energy, which increased electricity generation by 14 per cent.
Wind is expected to do even better in 2019 and is on track to provide a third of Ireland’s electricity this year, cutting millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions, increasing our energy security and driving down the wholesale price of electricity.
The Climate Action Plan produced in June is a welcome beginning as Ireland steps up to play its part in the fight against climate change, but an emergency isn’t really an emergency until we start acting like it is and until we start finding solutions to some of the key questions we need to answer if we are to hit our 2030 targets.
How can we get the growing pipeline of wind and solar projects through planning and connected to the electricity grid more quickly? How do we strengthen our transmission system to ensure the power produced by renewable energy gets to where it is needed?
Critical to answering these questions will be reforming a planning process that is cumbersome, contradictory and confused.
We need one that is fair and transparent. Everyone affected by a project has the right to be heard and, if they feel their concerns have not been taken on board, to object. This right must be protected.
But we also need a planning system that deals with applications more quickly and that fast-tracks critical infrastructure like renewable energy projects and grid reinforcements.
Vexatious objections must be tackled, and the judicial review process streamlined.
Any project not through planning by 2025 is unlikely to make much of a contribution to our 2030 targets
This is not about giving anyone a blank cheque. Our members must continually improve how we engage with communities and ensure our planning applications are clear and well thought out. No developer can be allowed to ignore legitimate local concerns.
But nor, at the same time, can the development of renewable energy be delayed or prevented by those who are opposed to action on climate change or by what Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy TD rightly calls Ireland’s “objection culture”.
One of the key challenges for wind-farm developers are the timelines for planning decisions to be made. An analysis of wind-farm appeals decided by An Bord Pleanála between 2017 and mid-2019 found that, on average, appeals were under consideration for 66 weeks.
This is far in excess of the planning board’s 18-week target and three times the average period for all appeals decided by in 2018.
Instead of 18 weeks being a simple target, it should be a statutory decision period and the board must be given the resources to ensure it can deliver – just as it has met statutory decision periods for strategic housing developments.
But, perhaps most important of all, the new wind energy guidelines – due to be finalised before the end of the year – must strike the proper balance between Ireland’s need to develop renewable electricity and the concerns some individuals and communities may have around wind-farm development.
The guidelines must be based on evidence. They must rest on a robust scientific analysis. They must draw on proven expertise – national and international – in noise assessments.
Only by doing this can the Minister develop a set of guidelines that will ensure the continued development of a thriving wind-energy industry, progress in cutting our CO2 emissions and reductions in the price of electricity.
Referring to the 2030 targets at the launch of their new strategy in September, EirGrid chief executive Mark Foley told the audience that the question of whether we would achieve the 2030 targets would be “decided in the first half” of the next decade.
By then we will know what projects – wind, onshore and offshore, solar and storage – have managed to successful navigate their way through the labyrinth of the Irish planning system.
Any project not through planning by 2025 is unlikely to make much of a contribution to our 2030 targets and every project lost means more CO2 emissions.
That is why the next two years are so crucial. It is now that the Government – and all parties in the Oireachtas – needs to work together to reform our broken planning system.
We are living in a climate emergency. Let’s start acting like it.
David Connolly is chief executive officer of the Irish Wind Energy Association