A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

Ireland ‘way off course’ in tackling climate change

If we are to meet our targets, every home, workplace and community must get involved, with radical changes to energy, transport and waste management

“The mood in the country is changing thanks to the efforts of young people but more needs to be done.” Photogrph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

“The mood in the country is changing thanks to the efforts of young people but more needs to be done.” Photogrph: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

 

Late last year, Ireland won the wooden spoon for its performance in taking action against climate change. The Climate Change Performance Index ranked it 48th out of 56 countries, the worst in Europe.

The outcome was based on an assessment of how much action each country had taken in relation to its commitments under the Paris Agreement of 2015.

The Government’s recently published Climate Action Plan summed up the issue succinctly. Ireland is “way off course”.

Part of the problem is, it suggested, attributable to economic recovery and the greater activity and consumption resulting from that. And steps have been taken, it pointed out. Under the Programme for Government, the Citizens Assembly was established which signposted the way forward. An All-Party Committee was established, which issued a comprehensive set of recommendations. The Dáil declared a ‘climate and biodiversity emergency’.

The Climate Action Plan’s job is to lay out clearly the ways in which the Government now hopes to achieve a net zero carbon energy systems objective.

If we are to meet our targets under Agenda 2030, and the Paris Agreement on climate change, every home, workplace and community must get involved, it warns, with radical changes to energy, transport and waste management also required.

Apart from the primary reason for doing so – to protect the planet – there are strong secondary ones too, including Ireland’s attractiveness in everything from tourism to food production and its status as an attractive location for foreign direct investment.

Ireland is, however, different from most other European countries, the report points out, because agriculture – specifically the methane associated with the national herd – makes up a third of emissions here, compared to a tenth in the rest of Europe.

Despite this, across all other major sectors, from electricity to buildings, transport and waste management, Ireland has a higher carbon footprint per head of population.

It’s why Ireland now looks set to miss its 2020 renewables target by 12 per cent, and its cumulative emissions targets by almost 5 per cent . Even more worrying, however, is the expectation that those recent growth rates will see us blown more than 25 per cent off course for the 2030 target.

The Government’s activities in relation to the Emissions Trading Scheme, which allows it to redeem itself somewhat through the purchase of carbon credits, has been denounced as a fig leaf.

The steps are designed to help ensure future population centres are compact and sustainable. Continued investment in forestry will help remove CO2. Other measures include the development of a green strategy for public procurement and more funding for research into climate challenge solutions.

The Government is also seeking to grow the use of renewable electricity from 30 per cent to 70 per cent , adding 12GW of renewable energy capacity to the system, with peat and coal plants closing.

Circular economy

It hopes 100 per cent of all new cars and vans will be electric by 2030. It also wants to develop the circular economy, to reduce waste.

The Climate Change Advisory Council, an independent advisory body chaired by economist John FitzGerald, has welcomed the Government’s development of sectoral adaptation plans by 12 key sectors.

It noted positively the news that the country’s 31 local authorities have prepared adaptation strategies. But it cautioned that resilience and adaptation issues exist which are not being addressed under the current plans, including in relation to coasts, housing and planning.

“Awareness of the need for adaptation remains poor, with corresponding low levels of willingness to take necessary actions,” it warned, highlighting the fact that adaptation will require significant investment from the private sector and households, as well as Government.

“To borrow a phrase there’s a lot done but a lot more to do,” says Gary Ryan, managing director of Energia Customer Solutions. “Ireland’s bottom ranking in the Climate Change Performance table shows we clearly have a lot of work to do.”

The key to success in relation to energy is what he calls the 4 Ds. These include decarbonisation and decentralisation – from community power schemes to individual homes sharing solar output. Digitisation refers in to smart metering while the fourth D, democratisation, is also known as deregulation.

Power companies have an obviously huge role to play in ensuring power generation comes as much as possible from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and biogas.

Energia has been piloting schemes for individual householders that combine solar with batteries, as a way of moving from centralised to distributed power generation. Its sustainable hydrogen already powers buses and it takes waste into its anaerobic digester in Huntstown, Dublin, and turns it into biogas. So changes are happening, just not quickly enough.

As part of Project Ireland 2040, the Government established a Climate Action Fund, the first tranche of which has gone towards high-capacity electric vehicle charging points, as well as moves to anaerobic digestion and LED lighting in homes.

It also plans to upgrade 500,000 existing homes to B2 BER ratings. This will pose particular challenges, however, warns Peter Campbell of Energlaze, a retrofit company that specialises in energy-saving glass.

‘A monumental task’

“There is a huge interest in energy retrofitting among the public but rolling out 500,000 home retrofits is a monumental task. It’s not going to happen today or tomorrow.”

Part of what will stall activity on this front is lack of personnel. “The challenge is that the skills and trades required to undertake all this work just don’t exist in Ireland in sufficient capacity at the moment.”

If the Government is serious about this commitment, it must also introduce policies that help attract more people into the apprenticeship system, he says.

“The tradespeople required by retrofitters are all caught up in the construction of new homes. We just don’t have enough qualified people in this country.” The fact that many emigrated in the last recession, and never returned, doesn’t help.

The recent abolition of the Deep Retrofit Grant makes sense to him, given that the Government can’t afford to foot the cost of retrofitting 500,000 homes by 50 per cent. In the meantime, single-measure supports are still available for the installation of more environmentally friendly technologies such as solar panels, new heating controls and insulation, he points out.

One of the other main challenges facing homeowners, as they are increasingly expected to make such environmentally friendly changes, will be lack of access to low-cost finance, he says.

Single measures such as the installation of solar panels or heating systems start from €5,000 and can rise to €15,000 with ease. Securing a bank or credit union loan can be hard. A State-backed fund ringfenced for homeowners, or some agreed bank facility that would see homeowners add the cost of such works to their mortgage – at a low interest rate – and pay it back over a number of years, would be of good, practical assistance, he suggests.

The mood in the country is changing, Campbell says, crediting young people in particular with successfully creating a seachange in public opinion on environmental issues both intersnationally and in Ireland.

“Greta Thunberg has had a great impact and raising awareness is important because we are at the early stages of figuring out what is the best approach to this and how will we all work together to achieve it,” he says.