It should not surprise anyone that the Programme for Government has a strong focus on the environment and emissions. Ireland remains one of Europe’s poorest performers in terms of tackling climate change and our obligations under EU law and the Paris Agreement mean that the next decade needs to see a radical departure from the status quo. At first glance, the Programme for Government delivers an ambitious list of objectives, which can take us from the bottom of the table to serious climate innovators. However, this must be caveated with a relative lack of detail in relation to timelines for implementation.
One of the reasons why we have failed to reach our targets to date, has been the lack of checks in the system. Yes, there is a Carbon budget, but who is really watching and what power do they have? The new Programme for Government includes measures which will support the implementation of policy.
A Climate Action (Amendment) Bill, to be passed within the first 100 days, is likely to put climate targets on a statutory basis, as is the case in the UK. Hopefully, it will also give a greater sense of timescales for policies and deliverables.
An Environmental Court is promised, able to move more quickly on breaches of Environmental and Planning Law. An Oireachtas Committee on Climate Change will be established with powers similar to the Public Accounts Committee. This would be a major advance in transparency. There is also talk of further powers for the Climate Change Advisory Council, whether they want them or not. These and other measures give greater hope that Environmental Policy may be implemented.
Measures to reform the Judicial Review process, which were previously flagged, could reduce the extensive use of the Courts as an additional Planning Authority. There is something wrong with a system where the attempted Judicial Review becomes more norm than exception as it seems to be the case in some parts of the energy sector. However, in reviewing this system, the rights of communities must be protected.
Getting to 70% renewable electricity by 2030 will not be easy. The Climate Action Plan had already laid out the need for a rapid expansion of Ireland’s offshore wind resources. The Programme for Government puts offshore wind front and centre, with important enabling legislation to be enacted quickly. The first Renewable Energy Support Scheme auction is to be delivered in 2021, ahead of previous guidance. The target for offshore is now 5k from eastern and southern waters, another leap forward. If we are to achieve our 2030 targets, offshore needs to be delivered fast in the Irish Sea. If we are serious about full decarbonisation, then ultimately, we will need to be developing large scale offshore projects in the Atlantic. Onshore wind continues to have a critical role and a commitment to finally get new wind energy guidelines completed is important.
Hydrogen features strongly in the Programme for Government. Ireland’s modern gas network and the large offshore wind resource make hydrogen a logical choice in Ireland. Hydrogen would allow surplus wind energy, a likely consequence of developing offshore, to be converted to gas. This could be used in power generation when the wind was not blowing. Germany last week announced an ambitious plan for hydrogen to be a key part in their energy transition. This can provide an example for Ireland.
It was also excellent to see ground mounted and rooftop PV solar mentioned in the plan. Solar has become significantly more cost-effective in recent years and despite our climate, it can have a role to play in our energy transition. These various renewable electricity technologies will drive a large programme of electrification in the heat and transport sectors.
The Programme has indicated that Anaerobic Digestion should be examined as its potential as an energy source. Combined Heat and Power receives a nod in the document as offering potential for decarbonisation.
Ireland’s homes are a significant part of our emissions problem. A large proportion of our housing stock is still fuelled by oil. This is incompatible with a achieving our climate goals. A programme of retrofitting was one of the early elements of the deal. There is talk of a commitment to install 600,000 heat pumps and retrofit half a million homes. With a deep retrofit costing anywhere between €25k and €80k, this is likely to be one of the most expensive aspects of the plan. It is also not clear whether the number of skilled heating technicians exists in Ireland to achieve this goal. While there is definitely opportunity here, this target, like the one for Electric Vehicles may be impossible to deliver by 2030.
Exploration & security of supply
The Programme for Government has put a ban on the development of fracking based fossil fuel infrastructure, meaning an end to the Shannon LNG project. There also appears to be an extension of the ban on offshore drilling to include drilling for natural gas. There was a review of energy security due to take place in recent months. This has not concluded its work, so it will be interesting to see how these new policies are operable, when one third of Ireland’s energy requirement and half of our electricity comes from natural gas. Regardless, this was a major victory for the Green Party in policy terms.
The proposed rise of the Carbon Tax to €100 by 2030 is a big win for the Greens. It will impact significantly on energy users and will start to change purchasing decisions in homes and businesses. Taxes change behaviour and changing consumer demand is part of the challenge. It is not clear how the money will be used or on what it will be levied. The original Green idea to refund it to consumers appears to have died in negotiations, possibly a victim of Covid and the need to shore up the public finances.
Carbon signalling will also play a role, according to the Programme. Informing consumers of the carbon content of their products can help change behaviour. Just as we benefit from knowing how much sugar or salt is in our food, knowing the carbon footprint of our tv, our pasta or our bottle of beer will help us to make better decisions.
A substantial proportion of our emissions come from transport. It is likely that the Greens will look to integrate planning and transport functions together in the creation of the new Government Departments. The Programme includes a 2:1 split between Public Transport and Roads projects. There is also a €300m+ fund for cycling and walking projects in our towns and cities. Encouragingly, the plan also looks beyond Dublin and looks to develop significant public transport in our other major cities.
One area of weakness in the plan is the failure to examine heavy goods transport. Lorries account for only 3% of our vehicles but 20% of our transport emissions. Tackling this with a shift from diesel to renewable gas should have been included in the plan.
Perhaps as a result of Covid and the destruction caused to Ireland’s tourism sector, there is little mention of Aviation as a contributor to emissions. It appears, any action to reduce emissions by airlines will be driven at international not national level.
The plan puts great emphasis on the need to engage communities. This is essential and it will be harder to deliver than to promise. Climate issues have increasingly been associated with an urban rural divide. This has frequently been used as a political football by opposition and Government TDs alike.
Our energy transition can help create and support jobs. Offshore wind can deliver for our coastal communities. Renewable gas production can create thousands of jobs in rural communities. Retrofitting will need significant numbers of engineers. The transition can also see communities benefit from ownership of projects or dividend schemes. While it is clear that we need to deliver renewable energy, we also need to ensure that host communities see the benefits too. This is particularly important because while energy demand will be in cities, much of our supply will come from rural communities.
A tall mountain to climb
If the Government can achieve all that it has set out to do on energy, it will have performed well and will probably have significantly improved our standing in environmental terms. Early wins will be essential to build confidence and momentum.
Our goal must be to reduce emissions. Policy should not be ideological and perfect should not be the enemy of good. Energy policy needs to balance our environmental goals with our economic needs and our security. Increasingly environment is playing a bigger role, but it cannot be the only concern in planning our future. Where progress can be made and a credible pathway to zero carbon identified, we should take the wins where we can find them.
More targets and specifics would be welcome. Hopefully we will see more detail in the weeks and months ahead. The Climate Action (Amendment) Bill will give a very strong indication of the depth of the Government’s ambition.
To come this far has already been an achievement. The depth of the plan will be noticed among both environmentalists and green investors. It may not all be achievable, but it is in most cases worthy of the attempt.
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