VICTORIA WHITE: Failure of public buildings to save energy hits climate and pockets

Sixty percent of Ireland's public buildings are not meeting energy-saving targets, but Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin is silent.

A big offender is the Coombe Women’s Hospital. Its energy use has rocketed by 89% since 2009 writes Victoria White

JUST as a UK report shows that our proposed Climate and Low Energy Bill has “critical weaknesses”, the first report on energy use in our public buildings shows that 60% of them are not achieving the required savings.

Since 2009, when our bust economy desperately needed savings in the public sector, we burned €100m a year by stupidly turning the heating up too high, leaving computers on all night and failing to invest in proper insulation.

Our cash-starved health service, which accounts for a quarter of all the energy used by public buildings, is only 6% more energy efficient than it was in 2009.

Big offenders are the Coombe Women’s Hospital, in Dublin, whose energy use has rocketed by 89% since 2009, the Mater Hospital, in Dublin, up by 64%, and the Marymount University Hospital and Hospice, in Cork, up by a whopping 101%.

If the Department of Health were achieving the 33% efficiency improvement, by 2020, to which Ireland has committed under the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan, it could be saving €40m a year. That would go a long way towards fixing our health service. But there has not been a peep about energy savings out of any of the ministers for health who have served in that time.

Nor has there been a peep about energy savings out of the ministers for education or the ministers for social protection.

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The National Energy Action Plan trumpets that the public sector “will be seen to lead by example” on energy savings. But what about our very own Swabian housekeeper, Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin? Not a peep out of him about energy savings in public buildings, while his own department has increased its energy use by 11% since 2009.

Among the other government departments that have increased their energy use is the climate-crucial Department of Agriculture, which is up 16%.

The much-loved IBRC has increased its energy use by 13%. Cork City Council increased its energy use by 11%, by contrast with Dublin City Council, which achieved e164,000 of savings in a year. And the National Museum, which last year warned it might have to close its doors due to lack of funding, increased its energy use by 16%.

The Sustainable Energy Authority’s report boasts that 41% of public buildings have reduced their energy use since 2009, and have saved €74m, thus preventing 313,000 tonnes of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere. There are great achievements in the small print: the Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown, has cut its energy use by 59%, and Cork University Hospital achieved cost savings of €100,000 in six months. Think how far that money would go towards the cancer care of a loved-one.

SEAI is rightly proud to have developed a system that will annually report on energy use in public buildings. What they’re not saying is that, since 2010, it has been a requirement under EU law for those who manage public buildings to report their energy use and how they’re cutting it.

The first report was announced as imminent by then Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte a full two years ago. Now, after a long wait, punctuated by many requests by Dublin Friends of the Earth, the first report shows that 400 organisations have public buildings, but only 238 have reported adequate figures.

For those like I am who are slow at the maths, that means 162 State-funded organisations have not reported adequately. Am I the only one who suspects they might not be front-runners in the race against wasted energy and that we should reserve our bile for them, and not for those who openly reported their failures?

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This hodge-podge of erratic figures reveals a total lack of political leadership in saving our money — and our climate — by conserving energy. We can get away with this because although the savings and the reporting are mandatory, there are no penalties for not bothering. ClientEarth says that energy efficiency is the one target on climate change that might not be met across the EU, because it is the one target that is not legally binding.

That’s why we need to legislate for it ourselves. But our pathetic Climate Bill, which is at Committee stage in the Houses of the Oireachtas, is designed to allow this shambolic performance on energy efficiency to continue. Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly actually complained in the Dáil that a Climate Bill that had firm targets for emissions reduction might expose us to legal action. ClientEarth says “a law cannot be truly effective if there are no consquences of a breach”.

A lack of oversight, enforcement, and independent commentary make for “inaction”, which ClientEarth describes as Ireland’s “default position”. That’s why their take on the Government’s proposed Expert Advisory Council on climate change is so galling.

Half of the members are to be drawn from state or semi-state bodies, whose aims are inconsistent with the radical emissions reductions we need: “For example, it will be particularly hard, if not impossible, for the director of Teagasc to act in the interests of both bodies,” write ClientEarth. Teagasc could start by tackling energy use in its own buildings, which has gone up since 2009.

If the Climate Bill proceeds into law unchanged, ClientEarth says it may give a “false impression of job done” and, ultimately, do more harm than good to our efforts to reduce our emissions. What they don’t understand is that this is what our legislators want. What other conclusion can you draw from the fact that we had the biggest banking bust in history since the Second World War, and had to cut frontline services in education and health, but can’t make energy savings mandatory in these sectors?

It is we, the taxpayers, who pick up the bill for the possible €100m worth of energy that goes up the spout of public buildings every year, just as it will be we, the tax-payers, who will pay the possible €300m worth of fines that will be imposed on us, under EU law, when we fail to meet our 2020 target for emissions reduction. Our entire society will be poorer as a result.

The Call to New Horizons, the last in the series of Climate Conversations hosted by IBEC, Christian Aid, Trocaire, ICTU and other stakeholders takes place at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on Sunday at 7pm.

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