To halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 the transport sector will have to play a key role. Not only does it account for roughly a fifth of Ireland’s emissions, but over the past 20 years, the amount has grown, unlike in many EU countries.
In both the Republic and Northern Ireland, transport emissions are around 2.5 tonnes per head, while in Germany and the UK they are around 2 tonnes. Our higher emissions reflect the dispersed settlement pattern on the island. More people live in rural areas, more commute from rural areas into our cities, and our cities themselves have followed a low-density pattern of development. This poses a major challenge to getting our emissions down.
The 2018 National Planning Framework sets out policies to achieve denser, more compact development, with people living closer to their place of work. However, with the continuing problems in ramping up home-building in our cities, there has been little if any progress. High accommodation prices in Dublin are pushing people to live in surrounding counties with resulting long commutes. Long-distance car commuting is a cause of both congestion and emissions.
The main solution to making our cities greener lies in reducing car use and shifting many journeys to public transport. To work this needs both carrots, in terms of developing good-quality, reliable and fast public transport, and sticks, in terms of congestion charges.
A switch to electric cars will help, but to a lesser extent in cities than in rural areas. Most car mileage takes place outside of the main cities. Dubliners travelled on average 13,000km in 2019; in most other counties the average was 17,000, while Roscommon clocked up almost 20,000km a year.
As most people in rural areas have little alternative other than to drive, suggesting they switch to public transport can be irritating and counterproductive
In rural Ireland, where people live on average more than three times as far from everyday services as do urban folk, it’s unrealistic to suggest that a switch to public transport would solve transport emissions there. We’ve a dispersed pattern of housing, and one in seven Irish people lives more than five kilometres from the nearest bus stop. Even when places are in theory within walking distance, walking along rural roads without footpaths is unsafe. Rural bus services are infrequent, and not necessarily available when people want to travel. So buses in rural Ireland, with the exception of school transport, are generally not a feasible alternative to the private car.
As most people in rural areas have little alternative other than to drive, suggesting they switch to public transport can be irritating and counterproductive. There are other important changes we need to make in rural areas to meet our climate goals, which are achievable, given good will and commitment. For rural journeys, it makes more sense to accelerate electrification of the rural car fleet than to pursue the chimera of a car-free countryside.
If someone travels by electric car from Belmullet to Castlebar to shop, that will have minimal impact on greenhouse-gas emissions as we move towards clean, decarbonised electricity. These rural roads are not congested, so the journey will not inconvenience anyone else.
The longer the annual distance travelled, the greater the emissions reduction and saving from using an electric vehicle. That means electric vehicles (EVs) make most sense in rural areas, where distances travelled are longest. Even at today’s prices, changing to electric can save households money over the life of a car, as well as dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
if the Government wants to further accelerate the transition to EVs, there may be some merit in having focused supports to encourage their take-up in low-income, high-travel counties
Currently, the state receives about €5 billion in taxes from transport, much of which will disappear as EVs take over from petrol and diesel. This tax revenue will have to be replaced. Ideally, the funding gap could be closed by a combination of congestion charges in urban areas and a payment for distance travelled annually by car. Such levies would incentivise a major drop in greenhouse gas emissions. The result would probably be cheaper motoring in rural areas and more expensive commuting in urban areas. Additional revenue from urban areas could be recycled to improve urban public transport.
The priority in decarbonising this sector is to manage the shift to public transport in our cities, while at the same time favouring a rapid transition to EVs in rural areas. Because the counties where people travel the longest distance tend to have low incomes, funding the transition to electric cars may be a problem until second-hand EVs become widely available. In the interim, if the Government wants to further accelerate the transition to EVs, there may be some merit in having focused supports to encourage their take-up in low-income, high-travel counties.