Ireland on course to miss EU emissions targets: What is Minister Naughten going to do?

In the coming days, the Minister will publish a draft climate action plan.

Independent TDs, coalition, Enda Kenny, Mattie McGrath, Fine Gael, government talks, Denis Naughten

Independent TD Denis Naughten at Leinster House | Image: RollingNews.ie

On Wednesday of this week, much of the focus in Leinster House was on Gerry Adams and his statement to the Dail about the murder of Brian Stack. The Sinn Fein leader was under some degree of pressure to explain why his version of events did not tally with those of Brian Stack’s son, Austin.

Given this was a story that involves the IRA murder of a prison officer, the leader of a political party, two more TD’s from that party and allegations of a cover up, it’s not surprising it garnered so much attention.

Meanwhile, over in the Seanad, another event slipped by almost unnoticed.

Minister Denis Naughten delivered his first ‘annual transition statement’ under the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. The point of this statement is to set out Ireland’s climate change policy and provide an update as to where the country is at in terms of meeting carbon reduction commitments.

This statement is a precursor to a much more significant event. In the coming days, the Minister will publish a draft climate action plan. This plan should provide details of exactly how climate pollution will be reduced.

Given the implications for industry, agriculture and the economy, publication of this plan deserves much more attention than it is likely to get. Similarly, the transitional statement is also worthy of closer examination.  

TRANSITIONAL STATEMENT

The Minister acknowledged the challenges that Ireland faces due to climate change. These include wetter winters, increased risk of flooding, summer heatwaves, rising seas and coastal inundation, storm surges and changes in the types of plants and animals on our land and in our water.

These are not abstract concepts. They will be the tangible consequences of a failure to reduce our emissions. And thus far, that is exactly what we are doing.

The Minister accepted that emissions of green house gases in Ireland increased by 3.7% between 2014 and 2015 with further increases expected this year and next year. Ireland needs to be cutting emissions on average by about 5% per year in order to hit targets. So it’s clear that action is needed.

WORK TO DATE

Under Budget 2017, €100m will be invested on energy projects which the Government predict will save over 116,000 tonnes in carbon emissions every year. These will support 3,000 jobs and the plan is that the investment will reduce our dependence on importing fossil fuels.

Furthermore, €7m is being allocated to kick start a new Renewable Heat Incentive and the Biofuels industry. €25m will be ring-fenced for the Better Energy Communities scheme. And there are many more.

The problem that some climate change campaigners have highlighted is that we knew about all of these already. And most of them are vague when it comes to emission targets. How much will they actually reduce green house gases every year? To what extent would they reverse that rise of 3.7% experienced last year?

Anyone hoping that the transition statement might answer these questions was left disappointed. It’s impossible to know what major policy changes, if any, the Minister intends to pursue in order to avoid missing targets.

Though in his defence, perhaps he was keeping his powder dry.

CLIMATE ACTION PLAN

In the coming days, the Minister is due to publish a draft action plan for public consultation. This will inform the more detailed National Mitigation Plan which is due to be completed by June 2017. This is the document which, it is hoped, will lay out in detail exactly how Ireland will reduce emissions in compliance with the Paris Agreement.

That agreement commits Ireland and all the other parties to the treaty to hold “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.”

If the Minister wants Ireland to fulfil its obligations, it’s clear his draft plan will have to hint at some significant action. We currently have the 8th highest emissions per capita in the OECD and we are one of only two countries in the EU who are set to miss interim emissions targets in 2020.

STOP CLIMATE CHAOS

In advance of publication of the draft plan, Stop Climate Chaos (a coalition of 28 different organisations) have highlighted five key questions that will need to be addressed;

  1. Does the new plan add up to doing our fair share?

The National Mitigation Plan should have an overall carbon budget for its 5-year timeframe and allocate the available emissions and reduction effort between sectors to achieve continuous, substantial and sustained decarbonisation when totalled across the whole economy

In other words, give precise targets to each sector of the economy and hold them to account.

  1. Does the plan kick start the phasing out of fossil fuels?

We need to keep 80% of all known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we want to remain within the temperature limits agreed in the Paris.

The Climate Change Advisory Council (establised under the 2015 Act) has identified closing down peat fired power stations as a means of achieving our targets in this area. They provide only 9% of our power but account for 27% of our electricity related carbon emissions.

  1. Does the plan ramp up renewable energy and kick-start community ownership?

Ireland relies on imported fossil fuels for about 85% of our energy needs. Within the electricity sector, about 75% of our electricity is generated using coal, gas and peat. While in recent years there has been a significant increase in renewable generation, less than 0.3% of this is owned by local citizens or communities.

Stop Climate Chaos compare the situation in Ireland with Germany. 1.5 millions households have solar roof panels and 50% of all renewable energy is owned by community groups. From here on in, they want Ireland to follow the Danish model whereby all developers of renewable energy projects must offer 20% equity to local communities.

  1. Does the plan put agriculture on a path to carbon neutrality?

The national objective is that total annual emissions from agriculture in 2050 will be no more than what is absorbed annually by our carbon sinks (forests, peatlands, grasslands).

This is arguably the most controversial issue when it comes to making Ireland’s economy greener. The agrifood industry accounts for over 8% of total employment in this country. We export over €10bn worth of food and drink annually. The sector makes up over 7% of the nation’s total GVA (gross value added).

However, 32% of our total greenhouse gas emissions come from farming. In September of this year, former President Mary Robinson was greeted with derision when she suggested people give up meat in the interests of saving the planet. While that might yet be a step too far for most in this country, it’s clear that without making substantial changes to farming practices in Ireland, we will not meet our targets.

  1. Does it realign transport investment to reduce emissions?

Transport is the only sector to have increased its share of emissions since 1990. In fact, emissions have doubled since 1990, to one fifth of Ireland’s total emissions. Actual total transport emissions rose 4% in 2015.

Stop Climate Chaos want funding currently earmarked for roads to be diverted to walking, cycling and clean public transport projects.

How much, if any of these suggestions will be included in the draft climate action plan to be published next week remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, much like the transition statement, the plan is deserving of a lot more attention than it is likely to get.