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Will Ireland’s transport emissions shape up for 2030?

Experts see car dependency and inadequate infrastructure as barriers to reaching our ambitious targets

Ireland’s transport sector represents about 18 per cent of national carbon emissions, with road transport and private car usage bearing the most significant carbon footprint. With three out of four citizens, on average, opting to travel by car daily, “current mobility patterns in Ireland are incompatible with the country’s target to halve emissions in the transport sector by 2030″, according to an OECD report published last year.

The report, Redesigning Ireland’s Transport for Net Zero, also noted that vehicle electrification and fuel-efficiency improvements are insufficient to meet Ireland’s ambitious targets in this area and stated that “large behavioural change” towards sustainable modes and travel reduction are needed.

How can this behavioural change be encouraged and how is Government policy enabling it? Or are our emissions reduction ambitions simply pipe dreams?

According to the report, Ireland could “unleash enormous opportunities by prioritising policies with a high potential for transforming its car-dependent system”. Brian Caulfield, professor in transportation at Trinity College Dublin’s department of civil, structural and environmental engineering, agrees with this and many of the report’s recommendations.


“As far as I am concerned, this is the best report that’s ever been done on transport in Ireland,” he says. “They are right in that what we currently have is not compatible with our targets. Personally I am struggling to see how we will get to the ambition we have for 2030.”

Rural transport needs

At the core of our transport emissions reduction targets is the goal of one million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road by 2030. Caulfield admits that his “fear” is that the Government is “over-relying” on the amount of decarbonisation that increased electric car ownership would provide.

“Driving our way out of this problem is not the way to do it. It is part of the solution but it’s almost half of the target for transport and my question is if we don’t do it, what’s plan B?”

Caulfield appreciates the difficulty in changing inbuilt mobility patterns – Ireland has simply evolved to be a car-dependent country, with 90 per cent of journeys undertaken by car.

“There is a reason why decarbonising transport is so difficult,” he says. “About 30 per cent of the country live in rural Ireland and their transport needs are very high. We have been indoctrinated into car culture just because of the way it is; it’s the most efficient way to get somewhere usually. This is one of the things that curtails anything we try to do in terms of getting our emissions down and getting them down that quickly.”

The National Sustainable Mobility Policy contains an overall aim of 500,000 additional daily active travel and public transport journeys by 2030 based on 2021 levels. Caulfield praises initiatives such as the Connecting Ireland Rural Mobility Plan but says our public transport system simply isn’t up to scratch if we want to end car dependency.

“We need to reprioritise our cities and towns to the most sustainable forms of transport – and that’s not an electric car; it’s a bus and a bike. We want Dutch levels of cycling and the Dutch took generations to get to where they are – you can’t just click your fingers and make it happen.”

Transport key to decarbonisation

According to Conor Minogue, Ibec’s senior executive in infrastructure, energy and environment, the battle to decarbonise our energy system will be “won or lost in transport”. He agrees a significant behavioural shift is required to come even close to reaching the Government’s targets.

“Transport is the largest energy consuming sector and is by far the largest source of energy-related CO2 emissions in Ireland,” says Minogue. “Emissions in this sector remain wedded to economic and population growth. Breaking this link demands a large-scale uptake of low and zero emissions vehicles, smart compact growth and a countrywide modal shift towards public transport and active modes like walking and cycling.”

Ibec want to see big investment in pedestrianization, cycle paths, greenways, and public transport projects including rail electrification, BusConnects, MetroLink, and a light rail for Cork city. Minogue says such investments are not only important for emissions reduction but for reducing congestion, enhancing quality of life and improving air quality.

He urges a pragmatic approach, however. “For example, rail freight might be a perfect alternative for some businesses and some products but not most,” he points out. “Similarly, some journeys will always be by private car so we cannot neglect investment in and improvement of roads. We must also accelerate the use and availability of alternative fuels and technologies for road transport.”

Barriers stalling EV uptake

Although the target of a million EVs on our roads is looking increasingly unlikely, Ireland is seeing significant growth in EV adoption year on year, says Kieran Campbell, market lead with Polestar Ireland.

“In 2020 total EV registrations were 4.6 per cent, in 2021 it was 8.5 per cent, in 2022 it was 15.2 per cent and year-to-date in 2023 it is 18.3 per cent,” says Campbell. “There is still significant capacity for growth but it is very positive to see the rapid increase over a short period of time.”

Grants towards the purchase of EVs are, of course, confined to new cars and have been steadily reduced in recent years.

“It would be of course more advantageous if there were more incentives but we must work with what is there now,” says Campbell. “A private customer can get a discount of €3,500 off their car if the total is less than €60,000 at present. Will this remain in place beyond the end of this year? We don’t yet know but this grant does help get more EVs on the road.”

Minogue agrees that the major barrier to EV ownership is cost. “We are still a few years off having a dynamic second-hand EV market. So these vehicles have to be bought in new and the differential between EVs and diesel remains prohibitive even with upward carbon taxes,” he says.

The removal of incentives such as the electric vehicle benefit in kind (BIK) exemption is “misguided”, he adds. “Already members are reporting that, for commercial fleet, the roll-out of EVs has stalled on the back of much reduced staff demand,” he says.

Another barrier to EV adoption is the lack of charging infrastructure, an issue for both privately owned cars and electric buses. Minogue sharply criticises underinvestment in public charging points. “The €100 million promised by the Government to support this investment cannot come soon enough,” he says. “For larger fleet owners, there are also prohibitive costs associated with developing privately owned charging systems.”

Matching investment to demand

Chris Collins, country president of Schneider Electric Ireland, says the Government and other stakeholders need to ensure that the roll-out of sustainable transport is introduced responsibly, matching investment with the scale of demand and available resources.

“The electrification of bus routes in parts of Dublin is already under way, with plans to replace the existing fleet with hybrid diesel-electric vehicles and eventually battery-electric buses over the next couple of years,” says Collins. “But the expansion of the fleet in the capital, and across the country, is dependent on the roll-out of an EV charging infrastructure with the capacity needed to keep battery powered buses on the road. This will mean upgrading the power facilities at bus depots and garages throughout Ireland to support the installation of EV chargers.”

Schneider Electric works with its partners to provide bus operators and regional transport authorities with the power distribution capabilities needed to optimise EV charging hubs. These also facilitate a switch to cleaner energy based on renewables and microgrids further down the line, Collins adds.

The OECD report ultimately suggested that the 2030 target was unfeasible, if not wholly unrealistic, and proposed a more gradual approach to emissions reduction in transport. Caulfield agrees with this approach. “The Government needs to focus on giving more urban road space back to pedestrians and cyclists and improve, improve, improve public transport.”

Planning permission and political sensitivities are stymieing or delaying many of the improvements that could be taking place right now, he adds.

“Last year we saw transport emissions were up; they will be up again next year no doubt. From a climate perspective, we just don’t have the time to wait for this any more.”

Danielle Barron

Danielle Barron is a contributor to The Irish Times