Climate change plan: Carbon taxes seen as best way to reduce pollution

Draft proposal analysis calls for rapid decarbonisation of Irish economy and society

The use of the term “climate disruption” in the title of the Government’s plan to respond to a rapidly warming world suggests there is finally a mindset change at the highest political level.

It fairly reflects what is facing Ireland if carbon emissions are not curtailed, though many contend "climate catastrophe" would be more accurate to describe the current situation.

Minister for Climate Action Richard Bruton has stressed over recent months the "whole of Government plan" would be a platform for transformation of the Irish economy and society to rapidly decarbonise how we live and work.

That immense task is added to by coming from such a low point; rising emissions coinciding within a booming economy, exacerbated by poor penetration of public transport (almost totally dependent of fossil fuels), sprawling suburbanisation, sustained agricultural expansion, and energy inefficient buildings (private and public) all too often using fossil fuels for heat.


To what extent does the Whole of Government Plan to Tackle Climate Disruption signal intent and capacity to deliver?

The draft version seen by The Irish Times suggests bold plays are envisaged, where the decarbonisation master plan is almost constantly updated, subjected to performance evaluation, while each Government department, State agency and sector is given clear responsibilities and demanding targets.

Failures manifest in previous plans – notably the National Mitigation Plan – and their lack of commitments, timelines and hard targets might suggest such a favourable initial judgement should be tempered. Others, such a first draft of the National Energy and Climate Panel sought be the EU, were simply not fit for purpose given what is facing the planet and the rising trajectory of current Irish emissions.

Stand-out elements of the plan include:

Backing Paris Agreement To pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, recognising this would significantly reduce climate risks and impacts.

Energy target A new commitment that 70 per cent of Irish electricity needs will come from renewable sources by 2030. This sends a clear signal to investors and developers.

Scaled-up commitments Across all sectors there are revised targets such as: 700,000 electric passenger vehicles on Irish roads; 500,000 retrofits of domestic houses; installation of 625,000 heat pumps in buildings; 10 per cent of Ireland's heat to be supplied via district heating in cities – by 2030.

Climate proofing All Government policies, spending and projects are to be climate-proofed, ie they must set out what they will do to reduce emissions. Green public procurement will mean the "least carbon" option will be weighted ahead of the cheapest course. The National Development Plan will probably need recasting in that regard because of a likely gap to target of some 39.6 million tonnes of CO2 for the 2021-2030 period.

Carbon pricing It may be politically fraught, but the major agent of behavioural change by industry and individuals will be rising carbon taxes, hitting €80 per tonne of CO2 by 2030, and likely to reach €265 by 2050. With supports for the less well off, it has the capacity to be the most successful way to reduce carbon pollution arising from fossil fuels – if public buy-in is achieved.

Carbon budgets A new powerful body, the Climate Action Council, will set emissions limits for all sectors over a five-yearly period on a path that cannot be abandoned by a change of government.

Microgeneration The plan recognises consumers using smart technology will soon become "prosumers", contributing power to the grid and getting paid for it. This gives big opportunities to farmers, small businesses and communities to participate in an energy revolution driven by innovation. It places a huge additional onus on ESB Networks and Eirgrid amid rising demand.

2030 targets Ireland will miss 2020 EU targets and pay a hefty bill running to hundreds of millions of euros. The plan commits to meeting even more demanding 2030 targets, saying this is economically viable and necessary.

The plan has biggest implications for sectors that drive the economy. In transport, it firmly backs electrification, facilitated by expected improvement in battery technology. Yet more changes in road tax and VRT will be introduced, based on CO2 emissions.

On agriculture, it backs the Teagasc blueprint to reduce emissions "in a manner that does not threaten food production" and building on efficiencies achieved on a small-scale level – though the technical know-how to achieve the large reductions being committed to are not yet determined. It envisages an enhanced role for farmers in generating biomass and increased use of land to sequester carbon.

Under built environment measures, the changes envisaged to public and private buildings are on a scale far exceeding the current response to the housing shortage crisis. It plans banning the installation of gas and oil boilers in new homes and potentially phasing out fossil fuel heating systems in all buildings within six years among many other measures.

The high cost of retrofitting is expected to be eased by low-interest green mortgages and wide availability of “one-stop shops” to pursue innovations.

Weather patterns

In energy, the plan strongly endorses deployment of offshore resources (wind, wave and tidal), more onshore wind, solar development and bioenergy including deployment of anaerobic digesters in the agrifood sector to generate biomethane of sufficient quality to inject into the gas grid.

As power generation gets out of coal and peat by the mid 2020s, a major investment programme will be needed to accommodate renewables on the grid, backed by interconnectors to Europe and the UK.

The first auction for the long-awaited Renewable Electricity Scheme “is expected to open for applications by end-2019” – whether that allows many renewable projects with planning permission to be completed remains to be seen.

The report also acknowledges immediate threats from climate change. These are predicted to get worse: more intense storms and rainfall, increased likelihood and magnitude of river and coastal flooding, water shortages in summer, increased risk of new pests and diseases, and adverse impacts on water quality.

Investment is necessary, it says, to minimise risks and costs “and also protect lives and property by building resilience into existing systems”.

Much of that effort will be focused on major cities at the mouth of estuaries which are vulnerable to flooding.


So much for the aspiration. What chance is there of the report being implemented? There has been a lot of political pussyfooting about responding to climate breakdown.

However, the Government has a mandate for radical action provided by the Citizens' Assembly recommendations and the far-reaching report of the all-party Committee on Climate Action. Climate is coming up on election doorsteps and there has been a bounce in recent polls for the Greens.

"Make no mistake, this report will change your life," Prof David Reay of the University of Edinburgh said in response to the UK's equivalent plan published recently. "If the meticulous and robust expert advice here is heeded it will deliver a revolution in every facet of our lives, from how we power our homes and travel to work to the food we buy."

The same verdict could be applied to the Government document, if it is relentlessly pursued by the political leadership in coming decades.

Critically, it will need to secure that buy-in from citizens, ensuring they see the benefits from adopting profound lifestyle changes, more intrusive infrastructure and taxation.

If the world is to have a chance of averting climate breakdown, it cannot be done without that backing, and people making a contribution in reducing their carbon footprint – no matter how small it is in the beginning.