TO his credit, after only eight months in the job, the Minister for Communications and Climate Action, Richard Bruton, is taking a strong lead in the latter area of his portfolio with the publication of an ambitious Climate Action Plan, setting out government policy for the next decade to 2030 and also looking forward to 2050, when it is hoped Ireland will be carbon-neutral as per the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015.
Of course, the urgency of action has been, rightly, accelerated by public demand, ranging from the second-level students’ protests of recent months, inspired by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg’s #FridaysForFuture campaign, to the growth in support for Green parties across Europe in the recent local authority and European Parliament elections. That it is driven by political expediency is irrelevant; the fact that there is a Climate Action Plan is a good thing to begin with.
There are 183 actions set out, along with timelines, some of which seem over-ambitious at first glance, but the need for climate action is so urgent that they are right to think big. It is not without its flaws, however, as the costing of expensive necessary measures is vague and this is somewhat worrying.
The EU greenhouse gas emissions reduction target is 30% between 2021 and 2030, which is a huge challenge for us, given that Ireland is on course to fail miserably to achieve the 20% target set for between 2005 and 2020, and will only achieve it on paper by spending tens of millions buying unused carbon credits. Deluding ourselves like this has no place going forward as we need to achieve real reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions.
This is not going to be easy as emissions are set to increase under our much-touted Project 2040 National Development Plan, which will surely have to be reviewed. Because of the growing economy and to our increasing population, emissions in the agriculture and transport sectors are set to increase and will need to be more than offset in order to achieve a net reduction.
These sectors are the ones that affect rural Ireland most. Because of the scarcity of frequent public transport, people in rural areas are more dependent on having their own mode and there will have to be generous incentives to get people to switch to emissions-free vehicles as they are so expensive and there is not a huge choice of second-hand vehicles in this sector of the market at the moment.
Unfortunately, the Climate Action Plan is short on detail as regards the improvement of public transport in rural Ireland. It needs huge investment if we are to have any hope of reducing carbon emissions in the transport sector. Electric-powered buses are ideal for urban areas, but it won’t be possible for them to have sufficient battery range on longer runs into far-flung rural areas until the technology evolves further.
Another big problem will be reducing agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions. With government plans, such as Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025 driving expansion in the food sector, this presents quite a conundrum.
The Climate Action Plan is again vague on how the increased emissions in the agricultural sector are going to be offset with, it seems, no question of a cull of cattle and sheep in the growing national herd. The solutions proffered by the Plan include farmers growing more trees – 8,000 hectares of new forest per annum – the rewetting of peatlands to act as sinks to capture or sequester carbon, less use of fertilisers and less-harmful ways of spreading slurry.
Encouragingly, an Ifac Irish Farm Report, published last week, found that while Cork farmers are concerned about the impact of any new environmental legislation, well over half of those surveyed were willing to do more with renewable energy on their farms and also declared themselves ready and willing to embrace environment-friendly initiatives. They will probably be obliged anyway by payment conditions likely to be attached to the next tranche of the Common Agriculture Policy 2021/’27 to take specific actions to reduce their carbon footprint with sustainable practices and by encouraging some farmers to diversify from livestock.
For the Climate Action Plan to work, everybody – individually and collectively – will need to buy in to the process of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by adapting our lifestyles and habits to assist the cause. It will not be good enough to leave it to others to do what’s necessary.
Incremental carbon taxes increases are going to drive up the price of fossil fuels over the coming decade with the aim of encouraging people to switch to sustainable energy sources.
Retrofitting of houses to improve insulation and the installation of alternative heating methods will be incentivised, but this will be costly and not everybody will be able to afford it. To succeed in this endeavour, a huge amount of government financial backing will be needed, be it through grants or low-cost loans.
There is no doubt that all the necessary climate action measures will be expensive, but it has to be done and, in the end, it should add up to money well spent for future generations.