Climate Action Plan is admirable first step

A Climate Action Delivery Board is the key part of the new plan, which has grand designs for the future. Whether they are attainable is another matter, writes Brian Ó Gallachóir.

Climate Action Plan is admirable first step

A Climate Action Delivery Board is the key part of the new plan, which has grand designs for the future. Whether they are attainable is another matter, writes Brian Ó Gallachóir.

When the Government recently published its long-awaited Climate Action Plan 2019, the launch was attended by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste, and nine ministers.

This level of engagement from our political leaders in climate action was unimaginable even a year ago.

But what about the plan itself? Does it go far enough? In short, it does go far enough in some respects and not in others.

Top marks for governance

The plan details some key actions relating to governance that are essential in ensuring the plan will deliver significant and ongoing climate action.

Key to this is the establishment of a Climate Action Delivery Board by the autumn, which will hold each department and public body accountable for the delivery.

It will be overseen at senior level by the Taoiseach’s department. Previous climate action plans have failed to deliver significant emissions reductions, and a key reason for this was lack of follow-through.

This delivery board should address that weakness.

An independent Climate Action Council will be established, with more powers than the current Climate Action Advisory Council.

These powers include recommending how much emissions are allowable within five-year periods (carbon budgets), monitoring progress towards targets, and providing policy advice.

It is very important to have an independent body with a strong role tracking progress.

The third key governance ingredient is the establishment of a Standing Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action.

The current Joint Committee on Climate Action played a pivotal role in building party political consensus on climate action policy but is due to finish by the end of 2019.

Establishing a standing committee should allow a continued focus on building cross-party consensus.

This is very important to ensure a continuation of climate action policy even if there is a change in Government.

High marks for ambition

The ambition contained in this plan is unprecedented in Ireland. The Government is committing to very ambitious targets in areas such as energy efficiency, electric transport and heating, renewable electricity, and community energy action.

The goal is to have nearly 1m electric cars and vans on our roads by 2030. This compares with approximately 10,000 currently.

Another target is to upgrade 500,000 homes by 2030 to a high energy performance standard (B2 rating).Currently we are upgrading about 23,000 homes annually but mostly with cheaper ‘shallow’ options such as insulating attics and injecting insulation into cavity walls.

This target requires us to step up considerably in two ways, increasing to 50,000 homes per annum and moving towards the more expensive ‘deep retrofit’ options.

The plan includes an ambitious target to increase the contribution from renewable energy to our electricity generation mix to 70% by 2030.

Ireland is currently a world leader in terms of the amount of variable wind energy we can integrate into our power system. This target will maintain our position as global leader in this area.

The plan also sets out an ambition to significantly increase the number of sustainable energy communities in Ireland from around 250 currently to 1,500 by 2030.

A number of new innovative measures are also included to support this, such as pilot ‘climate action community engagement’ offices in local authorities and obligations on energy suppliers and renewable energy developers to improve engagement with communities.

Low marks for the missing parts of the puzzle

The ambition of the plan will, if delivered, allow us to meet our legally binding 2030 target for emissions reduction and also maintain our position as world leader in wind energy integration. So, what is missing? Where does the plan not go far enough?

The measures and targets build on and increase the ambition expressed in the previously agreed National Development Plan. The emphasis, however, is on elements that require people to make active decisions, namely ‘what car will I buy?’ or ‘will I upgrade my home?’

What is missing is a complementary set of actions on the supply side.

A good example of a supply side measure is the biofuel obligation scheme that requires transport fuel suppliers to gradually increase the share of renewable fuels blended in the petrol and diesel sold around the country.

This was one of the few successful emissions reduction measures in the past 10 years. It is set to increase further over the next 10 years, but this was already contained in the National Development Plan.

The question is, can we develop other supply side measures where we place the onus on the energy suppliers? What about our gas system? Gas Networks Ireland has an ambition to achieve a 20% renewable gas share of gas supply by 2030. This could result in significant emissions reductions but it’s not included as a target in the plan.

How much of our energy will continue to come from greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels by 2030?

We do have a 70% target for renewable energy contribution to electricity generation, but electricity represents a small share (one fifth) of our overall final energy use. Hence, even if all the measures in the plan are delivered on, we may still have three quarters of our energy coming from fossil fuels by 2030.

In conclusion, this plan marks a very significant step forward in Ireland’s response to the climate change challenge.

There is great ambition, coupled with governance and oversight to increase the chances of success. Over time, we should also consider more actions on the supply side to ensure a more balanced approach and to provide greater certainty that we will meet our targets and no longer be considered a laggard in climate action.

Brian Ó Gallachóir is director of MaREI, the SFI research centre for energy, climate, and marine research, and professor of energy engineering at University College Cork.

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