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Monday 6 February 2023 Dublin: 3°C
Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
THE MORNING LEAD
Demands on government to step up on climate crisis as new action plan takes hold
The Climate Action Plan 2023 contains a suite of measures aimed at cutting emissions – but its performance over the last year was mixed.

THE PRESSURE IS on for the government to put its promises into practice on climate change in 2023 as experts and Opposition politicians demand an end to delayed action and missed targets.

At the final Cabinet meeting of the year, ministers signed off on the publication of the Climate Action Plan 2023, the first of the annual plans to be released since the introduction of legally-binding carbon budgets and sectoral limits during the summer. 

Tánaiste Micheál Martin described the new plan as a “blueprint for radical change in our country” and that it would enhance health and wellbeing as well as providing much-needed

The impetus for the plan is clear: if global temperatures are allowed to continue to rise, the world faces “unavoidable” hazards in the coming decades. 

Climate change impacts are already causing severe and widespread disruption in many ways, as explained by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

The World Meteorological Organisation has warned that Europe is a “live picture of a warming world” and that even relatively well-prepared societies are not safe from extreme weather events. 

Ireland has international commitments to act on climate as a member of the European Union and as a party to the UN Convention on Climate Change and has set targets of cutting emissions in half by 2030 (compared to 2018) and reaching net-zero by 2050.

The Climate Action Plans are supposed to chart how the government intends to reach those targets as well as supporting people and communities during the transition.

However, while significant progress has been made in recent years, experts say it is not yet at a pace that is sufficient to match the level of change that must happen to reduce emissions and help to prevent the climate crisis from worsening.

Hesistant reaction

The publication of the Climate Action Plan 2023 was met with a lukewarm response in a sign of the scepticism held by many about whether the government will rise to the challenge.

Friends of the Earth Chief Executive Oisín Coghlan said that the plan is a “step in the right direction” but the “real test now for the new Taoiseach and his ministers is to deliver at pace”.

“2023 must see a laser-like focus on implementation, implementation, and implementation, not just from ministers and their departments but also from the state agencies they oversee from the CRU to Teagasc,” Coghlan said.

“Ireland now has a solid platform for serious climate action, from the law to the carbon budgets to the sectoral emissions ceilings and now this first statutory action plan. What we need now is consistent political leadership and determination to implement this plan and actually reduce emissions in 2023,” he said.

“If Irish emissions don’t start to fall rapidly in 2023, this Government’s carefully constructed credibility on climate will crumble.”

Social Democrats climate spokesperson Jennifer Whitmore said that she has “no confidence” in the government’s ability to deliver.

“Clearly, the government is adept at publishing glossy plans that set out lofty goals – but talk is cheap.

The reality is the plan is not worth the paper it is written on unless it is actually delivered and there is nothing in this government’s record that suggests it is on track to do that.

“This government excels at climate rhetoric, not climate action.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin climate spokesperson Darren O’Rourke honed in on the increasing difficulty the country will face staying within the first carbon budget.

“We are mid-way through the first carbon budget, which requires emissions to fall by an average of 4.8% per year,” he said.

“However, last year emissions increased by 5.4% and they will rise again this year.”

Slow start

The government has been criticised repeatedly for failing or being slow to implement some of the plans that it sets out for climate action.

The Climate Change Advisory Council, in both its 2021 and 2022 annual reports, warned of significant gaps between the government’s ambitions for climate action and the implementation of those actions in practice.

Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan said in November that Ireland is “putting the right policies in place but we now need to deliver in the reductions across so many different sectors”. 

Even the government’s own latest assessment of its progress on the 2021 plan described the implications of any “failures or delays” in implementation experienced to date as “stark”. 

Quarterly reports encapsulating October 2021 to September 2022 detail what the government did and did not succeed at implementing on time throughout the year.

The Climate Action Plans assign responsibility for particular measures to specific government departments as well as agencies such as Teagasc, the Office of Public Works, and Fáilte Ireland, among others.

The Department of Environment, Climate and Communications, which is responsible for the largest number of measures, performed consistently poorly relative to other departments.

By September, the DECC had finished 55 actions from Q4 2021, 27 from Q1 2022, 39 from Q2, and 18 from Q3, or 139 in total out of 204 (68%).

The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage also delivered 68% of its assigned actions (52 out of 77). Lower delivery rates were reported only by the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth at 67% (two out of three actions) and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (nine out of 16).

Overall, 77% of measures scheduled for completion between October 2021 and September 2022 were marked as finished by the end of September, though many of them later than anticipated. 

A further 166 delayed measures were pushed over into the final months of the year on top of any measures that were already scheduled for the quarter.

Some of those measures still delayed by the end of September were a residential retrofit loan guarantee scheme, a new Forestry strategy, and the development of detailed plans to manage sustainability in the dairy and beef sectors.

The government also failed to publish new guidance for retrofitting traditional buildings, a Bioeconomy Action Plan, and the high-level design for the Microgeneration Support Scheme.

It did not finish exploring pathways for earlier finishing of beef animals, determining an appropriate model for the development of district heating, or upgrading energy assets to adapt to the impact of climate change on vulnerable infrastructure.

Nor did it publish a long-awaited long term national climate strategy – the very first action on its list.

Cutting emissions

However, even if all of the actions contained within the plan had been implemented, the government’s approach would have still fallen short of reducing emissions by the necessary amount.

Research published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that the plan’s measures, if fully successful, could reduce emissions by 28% by 2030 – far from the required 51%.

The latest progress update report acknowledged the EPA’s findings, saying that “delays in climate action implementation must be overcome to meet national and EU emissions reduction obligations”.

“The agency stresses the need for urgent implementation of all climate plans and policies, plus further new measures, to meet 2030 targets and put Ireland on track for climate neutrality by 2050.

“In this context, any failures or delays in implementation experienced in Climate Action Plan 2021 are stark and increase the likelihood of not meeting legally-binding carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings.”

climate action plan 5651 Sam Boal / Rollingnews.ie Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin at the launch of the Climate Action Plan 2023 Sam Boal / Rollingnews.ie / Rollingnews.ie

Looking ahead to this year, the plan for 2023 sets out that “ the science is indisputable and the effects of climate change are already clear”.

“As global temperatures increase, the extremes of weather and climate we experience will also increase, and this will lead to increased risks to people and to nature.”

The plan says it is “essential that we act now to increase the rate of key decarbonisation activities across all sectors of the economy”.

“Implementation of the Climate Action Plan will create jobs, new economic opportunities and protect people and the planet. By delivering on this plan, we will secure the future for our children and grandchildren. It’s our chance to make the right choice.”

Electricity

In the electricity sector, measures in the new plan focus on ramping up production of renewable energy such as offshore wind, improving flexibility on the grid, and managing electricity demand.

It includes measures aimed at accelerating the delivery of onshore wind to 9GW, solar to 8GW, and offshore wind to at least 5GW; a new Green Electricity Tariff by 2025 to incentivise the use of lower-cost, renewable electricity at times when high levels of wind and solar are generated, and phasing out coal and peat in electricity generation.

“During the second carbon budget, Ireland’s enormous potential for offshore wind will start to be realised, setting the country on a long-term trajectory for a net zero electricity system and allowing Ireland to supply renewable energy to, and offset emissions in, other European countries,” the plan outlines..“In the meantime, a major acceleration and increase in onshore wind turbines across the country, transformation of land use from other activities such as agriculture to solar PV, and a hitherto unseen level of electricity network upgrades and construction will be required, as a minimum.

“As importantly, rapid delivery of flexible gas generation is needed at scale and in a timeframe to replace emissions from coal and oil generation before the second carbon budget period.”

Industry

The industry sector, which predominantly concerns manufacturing and construction, accounted for 10.2% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2021 and must reduce its emissions by 35%.

The key targets are to decrease embodied carbon in construction materials by 10% and 30% by 2025 and 2030 respectively; reduce fossil fuel demand through energy efficiency measured by 7% and 10%; and to increase carbon-neutral heating to 50-55% and 70-75%.

Measures include increasing the use of green hydrogen, reducing demand for fossil fuels and reducing embodied carbon in construction materials.

Transport

On transport, the plan says there should be a 50% increase in daily active travel (walking and cycling) journeys, 130% increase in daily public transport journeys, and 25% reduction in daily car journeys, plus a 20% reduction in total vehicle kilometres, car kilometres, and ‘commuting’ car kilometres and 50% reduction in fuel usage.

If plans are implemented, 70% of people in rural areas should have access to buses that go to the nearest town three times a day. Local authorities will be told to identify roads suitable for reallocating how space is divided between different road users, eMobility hubs will be rolled out in cities with shared electric transport options, and incentives will be developed to promote electric bikes and electric cargo bikes instead of private cars.

The public transport plans include progressing the BusConnects, Dart+ and Cork Commuter Rail programmes and the MetroLink subject to approval from An Bord Pleanála.

The new plan also commits to the publication of a draft National Policy Framework on Alternative Fuels and advancing 1,000km of walking and cycling infrastructure.

Agriculture

The plan’s section on agriculture, which accounts for the largest proportion of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, looks at measures around the use of fertilisers, such as the introduction of a national fertiliser database and significantly reducing the use of chemical nitrogen; improving the efficiency of animals through certain breeding and feeding techniques; and expanding the organic sector by providing financial support to farmers who convert to organic farming.

It raises “providing options to livestock farmers” to change their land use to anaerobic digestion, forestry or tillage. Livestock farmers should be supported to transition through efforts by the government to increase organic farming to 250,000 hectares, expanding the indigenous biomethane sector, increase tillage area to 360,000 hectares, and increasing afforestation while reducing the management intensity of organic soils.

“Guided by the Food Vision 2030 Strategy, Irish farmers and food producers will further prioritise delivery of environmental, social, and economic sustainability. Significant additional investment will be required to underpin the proposed diversification measures,” the plan outlines.

“Farm practices that enable farmers to produce world-class food with a lower carbon footprint are key,” it details.

“The plan commits to using less chemical nitrogen and more targeted use of fertiliser, while maintaining the same level of grass growth through multi-species swards.

“Other measures include improving the genetics of our herds to reduce emissions and improve productivity. We will also incentivise increased organic farming and diversification into forestry, biomethane and energy production.”

Land use

Land use, land change and forestry (LULUCF) has not yet been assigned a final emissions ceiling; the government is waiting until it finishes a review of land use.

Nonetheless, the new plan outlines blueprints to increase afforestation to 8,000 hectares per year from 2023 onwards compared to 2,000 hectares in 2021 and 2022, rehabilitating 33,000 hectares of peatlands, and improving the management of grasslands on mineral soils for the purpose of carbon sequestration.

Circular economy

On circular economy, the plan provides for the publication of a whole-of-government strategy and the establishment of a Circular Economy Innovation Scheme to fund projects to raise awareness or improve consumption patterns for certain products or sectors.

A Food Waste Prevention Roadmap to halve food waste by 2030 is to be developed as well as enhancements made to food waste segregation, collection and treatment.

The government will “develop new and expanded environmental levies to encourage reduced resource consumption and incentivise higher levels of re-use and recycling”.

Further measures in the plan relate to a just transition, the public sector, carbon pricing, built environment, land use, the marine environment, international climate action and adaptation.

While most sectors have been told how far they are being asked to cut their emissions in the coming years, the figures still stand to change because 26 megatonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (MtCO2eq) was left unallocated in the sectoral ceilings.

This was done in the hope that “emerging technologies or policies” that are not yet in place would be able to make up the difference in future years.

But reacting to the report, Climate Change Advisory Council member Professor Peter Thorne of Maynooth University said that “despite the progress evident in the new Climate Action Plan, the remaining gap of unallocated emissions reductions is a substantial concern”.

It is imperative that a roadmap to close this gap be completed expeditiously to bring certainty to sectors, industry and society as to how we will achieve our ambitions.”

The plan has also not convinced the Opposition, with several TDs pointing to previous failings and dragged-out promises.

Jennifer Whitmore of the Social Democrats said that the government “has said it wants 500,000 homes retrofitted to a BER 2 standard by 2030. It has done just 6,000 homes to that level this year.”

“It says it wants 400,000 heat pumps installed by 2030. A meagre 1,400 have been installed this year,” she said.

“When it comes to electric vehicles, the target is to have 945,000 on the road by 2030. In April of this year, that figure was 54,000.”

Sinn Féin’s Darren O’Rourke also pointed out the retrofitting target, saying that “most people simply cannot afford to retrofit their home, and this plan fails to address this central issue”.

“Instead, this plan repeats the target of 500,000 B2 retrofits by 2030, despite the fact that the government will miss their own target of 8,640 B2 retrofits this year.”

Additionally, “back in 2020, the government set a target of planting 8,000 hectares of forestry per annum. This hasn’t been met in any year since then and will likely be missed yet again this year”.

“We need a focus on delivery and meeting the existing climate targets we have, not rehashing and relaunching the same policies over and over again.”

And Labour Party Leader Ivana Bacik said that “unfortunately, whether it is the Climate Action Plan, the carbon budgets, or the sectoral emissions ceilings, I struggle to recall an occasion during the lifetime of this Government when climate policy measures were delivered on time”.

“Moreover, I have been disappointed to see the Government repeatedly miss its own targets,” Bacik said.

“With the recent change of leadership in the Government, it is of vital importance that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil recalibrate their approach to this existential issue. Ireland must lose its reputation as a ‘climate laggard’.”

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