As the Environmental Protection Agency made clear last week, Ireland will definitely exceed its carbon budget to 2025 and almost certainly overshoot again for the period to 2030. This also means we are unlikely to comply with the legal target of halving our greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
This is clearly very disappointing. However, I am a glass-half-full person: at long last Ireland is taking the issue of global warming seriously, even if action on the ground is much too slow.
The problem is that much of the necessary changes to our way of life involve investment. That inevitably takes time to realise, even where regulations don’t hold things up. To make major progress in this decade in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, we should have started the necessary investment five or 10 years ago. The fact that we will miss our targets this decade is no excuse for giving up on the essential investment programme that can dramatically reduce emissions between 2030 and 2035.
Research undertaken by University College Cork for the Climate Change Advisory Council showed that some of the necessary policies to reach this decade’s target for emissions reduction would cost at least €500 per tonne of carbon avoided. However, it also showed that there would be a lower cost to achieve major reductions in emissions in the period between 2030 and 2035. The difference in cost reflects that it’s important to give time for the necessary investment to take place.
Over the last three years we have seen extensive engagement by the Government and the Oireachtas in setting legislative targets, including carbon budgets. However this effort has left very little bandwidth for implementing policies to actually change what we do. It’s not enough to encourage us to be model climate citizens when there is no obvious penalty for bad behaviour.
There is a real possibility that we could dramatically reduce the carbon emissions from our electricity system by 2030, and it still may happen. The big obstacle that could see us fail will not be a shortage of money or of targets. Rather, if we don’t tackle effectively the regulatory and planning obstacles to undertaking the essential investment, we won’t get there.
If we are to go anywhere near meeting our targets, we rapidly need to build enough windmills and solar farms, and the wires that will connect this green electricity to the grid.
Our track record is poor. The planned North-South electricity interconnector has still not commenced, although it was to have been built 15 years ago. Many of our current wind turbines are operating on temporary planning permissions – and the first renewals are being turned down on “environmental” grounds. If tackling climate change is genuinely an emergency, we need to eliminate these obstacles to the green investment we require.
Most of our housing stock will need to be retrofitted over the next 30 years. There have been real strides in putting in place the structures to make this happen, including training people in the skills to do the job. However, progress is slower than expected because of pressures elsewhere in the economy. But while we probably won’t hit the 2030 target on this, we are likely to be well on the way there. If we can step up the building of new carbon-neutral homes, that will also push up the share of climate-friendly homes.
Irish farmers can also be part of the climate solution, and make money from it, by switching a small share of their land to forestry. If 5-10 per cent of agricultural land was used to grow trees, this would suck large quantities of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, particularly in the period 2030-2050, as trees planted now begin to mature. But a dysfunctional system of regulation of plantation and management of forestry is a real blockage.
The move to electric cars has accelerated, and we might reach the 2030 target there. However, with prolonged regulatory processes, it’s been painfully slow to progress the reliable urban public transport that might wean us from our cars, through projects like Bus Connects or Dart Underground.
If we are serious about decarbonising Ireland by 2030, we need to spend much less time talking about targets and much more removing obstacles to action. Putting targets into law was the easy bit – changing our sclerotic regulatory systems could actually deliver real action. We need to curtail the multiplicity of layers of consultation and approval, and streamline decisions on environmental investment. If climate action is an emergency, we must treat it as such.