The government must act to encourage renewable energy development in Ireland.
On May 9th 2019 Ireland became the second country in the world to declare a climate and biodiversity emergency. The declaration was accepted by both the government and the opposition of the Dáil without a vote. Just a few weeks later, Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton TD introduced the government’s first Climate Action Plan.
The stage is set for our country to transform itself from a climate action laggard to a leader, but will we succeed?
The task is enormous. According to scientists, about one-third of Ireland’s 98 wild bee species are threatened with extinction, while recent findings show that over 60 per cent of the 202 species of commonly occurring birds in Ireland are now on the red and amber conservation lists. Ireland is the worst-performing EU member state in tackling climate change according to the Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) 2019.
Though the plan’s ambition is laudable, we’re disappointed to see relatively little support to encourage renewable energy projects other than wind. The plan sets a target of 70 per cent of our electricity to come from renewable sources by 2030 (up from 30 per cent) and yet the measures to encourage biogas and solar production, to name two RE technologies, fall far short.
The scheme for supporting anaerobic digestion (biogas) plants will support projects at about 2.95 cent per kWh. Compare that to the UK scheme which provides an incentive of 5.47 cent per kWh. Given that differential, it’s unlikely that this plan will boost biogas plant development in Ireland in any significant way. The Irish incentives are not index linked to account for inflation, nor do they apply to projects over 2,400mWh. This contrasts with the UK scheme which uses a tiered system to encourage all sizes of plants. Anaerobic digestion produces biogas via the breakdown of organic material, making it an ideal technology for Ireland’s farmers and the agri-food sector. The missed opportunity is obvious.
While Bord na Móna announced earlier this year that it will cease burning peat to generate electricity, moving towards biomass, we know that until 2030 it will be co-firing biomass with peat, the most harmful fossil fuel of all.
We would like to see a new SSRH scheme (Support Scheme for Renewable Heat) for homeowners. The current scheme only supports commercial, industrial, agricultural and other non-domestic heat users, yet our homes are a big emitter of GHGs and pollutants – over 1m homes in Ireland are oil fired, and most new homes are fitted with fossil fuel boilers, which makes a mockery of policies based on retro-fitting homes. Home heating makes up around 10% of our total carbon emissions; we would call that low-hanging fruit.
Electricity from solar micro-generation
A pilot scheme to allow homeowners sell electricity generated through solar panels back to the national grid will be introduced, with plans to roll the scheme out across the country by 2021. Many similar programmes exist in other European countries. We welcome the introduction of a micro-generation scheme, though it must provide a genuine incentive to encourage people to participate in it. Two things to note on the negative side: some work will need to be done to allow homes to connect to the national grid at a reasonable cost to facilitate micro-generation, and the aim to have 1.5GW of solar energy by 2030 is far from ambitious. That target could be reached by the end of next year.
Aside from renewable energy, the Climate Action plan includes many other proposals to address the climate crisis including:
- Regulations to be introduced to curb the use of single-use plastics by the end of 2021. It should be noted that this is an EU Directive, rather than an Irish initiative.
- The carbon tax will rise to €80 per tonne by 2030 (It’s currently €20 per tonne).
- A house retrofitting programme will be established to improve the energy efficiency of 500,000 homes, particularly in the midlands.
- The cycle path network and park-and-ride facilities will be expanded and improved.
- A nationwide charging network for electric vehicles will be created to service the 950,000 electric vehicles that will be on the road. Legislation will ban the sale of petrol or diesel cars from 2030.
- The plan aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture by creating new, sustainable opportunities for farms.
Will this plan join others on a dusty shelf?
It is clear that cross-department accountability is key to the achievement of the almost 200 actions in the plan. This is something that Minister Bruton has insisted on from the beginning of his tenure. A Climate Action Delivery Board will be established, jointly chaired by the Taoiseach’s Department and Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, to oversee the implementation of the Climate Action Plan. A progress report will be submitted to Cabinet and published each quarter. The Delivery Board’s attachment to the Taoiseach’s office is encouraging but we would like to know more about its influence and sanctioning power.
Carbon budgets, ministerial targets and penalties
We are encouraged by the promise of such policy measures as the setting of five-year carbon budgets and sector targets, underpinned by a new Climate Action Act, with penalties should the relevant Minister fail to meet them. All major government investments and decisions will be carbon-proofed, the plan says, and every public body will be given a climate action mandate by their line Minister to prioritise climate action.
The Climate Action Act must be enshrined in law before an election is called. Good climate action bills when proposed by non-government parties or groupings do not fare well. Just look at the Green Party’s excellent Waste Reduction Bill on single-use plastics and Brid Smith TD’s Climate Emergency Bill to ban oil and gas exploration, the latter effectively blocked using the dark arts of parliamentary procedure, despite being backed by the majority of TDs.
The plan tells us that semi-state bodies will be sent new letters of expectation on climate action, whatever clout that will have.
The current Irish target is an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, though climate scientists say this is insufficient to keep global temperature increases to under two degrees as envisaged under the Paris Agreement.
It’s an ambitious plan by Ireland’s standards but an ambitious plan is needed. It could be a more robust plan if renewable energy incentives (other than wind) were improved.
Every government department and semi-state company needs to get behind this plan to give it a fair chance of making a difference. What’s more, to fully enshrine the actions and goals into a long-term vision, we think the Climate Action Plan should be integrated with the government’s Project Ireland 2040 Plan published last year, a 20-year plan the stated objective of which is to:
“Provide a comprehensive social, economic and cultural infrastructure for all our people to flourish, so that together we can create a better society.”Project Ireland 2040
For our society to flourish we really need climate action to be at the heart of Project Ireland.