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'A step on the road': The climate action that Ireland will - and won't - take in 2022

Here’s what the Government will be doing this year – and what experts say must be tackled.

Raheenleagh windfarm in Co Wicklow
Raheenleagh windfarm in Co Wicklow
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

IN THE FIRST few months of the year, the Government should publish a long-term climate strategy for Ireland that maps out plans for the country to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

It’s a step which is crucial to cementing important climate action targets, but one which the Government has been criticised for because it has not happened sooner.

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has indicated that the Government intends to publish the strategy in the first quarter of 2022.

It likely won’t be until at least April that the long-awaited carbon budgets and sectoral emissions limits are finalised, despite proposals by the CCAC and the Climate Action Plan – on which those budgets are based – being published in October and November.

This year will see a 2022 Climate Action Plan that is updated to “fully reflect the legally adopted carbon budgets and sectoral ceilings”.

But one group, Climate Case Ireland, has warned that the state could face legal action if the strategy isn’t published by the start of January, which would be two years later than an EU deadline of 1 January 2020 for member states to submit 30-year plans.

In its annual review, the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) also emphasised that the absence of a long-term strategy makes it concerned about the “potential higher cost implications of delay in long-term action”.

It further warned that delays in reducing emissions now could mean that higher – and more expensive – reductions could be necessary in the future.

So what does the plan mean for Ireland and what could happen next year?

Documents detailing the different measures arising from the Climate Action Plan run to more than 450 pages. The Journal analysed these documents and spoke to experts to understand what’s planned for 2022 – and which interventions are needed most urgently.

green party 868 Minister for Climate and the Environment Eamon Ryan Source: Sam Boal

Energy

The 2021 Climate Action Plan raised the stakes for the energy sector, increasing the proportion of electricity that must come from renewable sources.

A target set two years previously for 70% of electricity to be generated from renewable sources has been increased to “up to 80%” by 2030.

As such, developing renewable energy sources comprises much of the Government’s plans in the sector, particularly through on- and off- shore wind and microgeneration (creating solar, hyrdo, wind or other renwable energy on a small-scale for use by the property where it is produced).

A grid connection policy, which will allow offshore wind electricity to be supplied through the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme by auction for the first time, is due to be published in the second quarter of the year.

And the government’s policy on the role of data centres is to be reviewed, looking at renewable electricity targets and sectoral emissions ceilings.

Speaking to The Journal, Dr Hannah Daly, an environment and energy researcher at University College Cork, explained that Irish society “has been completely reliant on fossil fuels to power it up until now”.

Our current reliance on fossil fuels means it’s going to take “major” efforts to shift to renewable sources, she said.

“It’s hard to overstate the scale of changes and the speed of changes that are needed,” Dr Daly said.

“2030 is just one step on the road to total decarbonisation of society by 2050 and that’s less than thirty years away,” Dr Daly said.

There’s a huge number of policies that need to be put in place, infrastructure that needs to be put in place and messaging to get society on board to enable decarbonisation.

In 2022, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and ESB Networks should have progressed a smart metering programme and rolled out new products and services to make that possible to “enable consumers to shift some of consumption to off-peak times when electricity is cheaper”, Daly said.

But some measures that could guide the sector in the future are still several years away.

It’ll be 2023 when the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (MARA), a new state agency for managing offshore renewable energy applications, is established.

A Net Zero Roadmap for the electricity sector isn’t due to be delivered until mid-2024.

Dr Daly has already cautioned that long waits for important policies like these pose a risk to decarbonising the Irish energy sector.

“I think that there’s a lot of ambition but there is definitely inertia in getting a lot of the conditions that are needed for decarbonisation,” she said.

“Offshore wind is an absolute cornerstone of our energy system’s decarbonisation strategy, but right now, it’s the delay in key pieces of legislation which is a really big problem.”

Communication

For climate writer and campaigner John Gibbons, the Government needs stronger communication with the public about the risks of climate change to lay the groundwork for its climate goals.

“My concern is that I’ve seen no indication so far that the government is preparing to level with the public that we are going to have to make sacrifices,” Gibbons said.

“We’re going to have to tighten our belt, we’re going to have to learn to manage within severely strict carbon budgets.

“My view is: we can wait for the climate catastrophes to roll in one after the other for that change to happen, by which time it’ll be too late.

“Or we communicate strongly and clearly with the public about the realities and dangers tied into the climate breakdown, and how they are very much as real for Ireland as they are for anywhere else in the world.

The state is up against public inertia and strong vested interests pushing against climate action. You can only overcome that by getting into the public domain and taking on strong promotional media, advertising and communication campaigns.

Gibbons suggests that these could be developed with communication experts and psychologists to identify what we understand about how people react to a threat like the climate crisis and find a way to mobilise the public.

“If we put that in place then I think it is the key that opens the door through which all the other changes that we want to happen can occur,” he added.

The Department of Environment’s annex of climate actions outlines how the Government plans to develop a climate communications strategy by the second quarter of 2022.

But Gibbons says that if they want to create long-lasting change, Government communications can’t narrow their focus to asking the public to take certain individual actions.

Instead, he says they need to be clear about the costs of not making system-wide changes.

“About 11 years ago, the last Green government brought a campaign out called ‘the power of one’ and it was all focused on single actions, like switching off light bulbs,” he said.

“That was fine a decade ago because in a way that was where we were at”, Gibbons added, before noting that individual actions aren’t enough to mitigate the climate crisis.

“The net effect of that particular campaign was that it led to short-term response but almost zero medium-to-long term change because nobody was invested in the reasons why.

“So as soon as the reminders stopped, any small gains that had been made were lost.

“We need small things, but mostly, we need big things [...] switching off lights is one thing but what’s far more important is how the electricity is produced in the first place/

“That’s why we have to go upstream to find out how our systems work and to challenge and change those systems.”

CLIMATE PROTEST DUBLIN 8L5A9194 A climate protest in Dublin, June 2021 Source: Rollingnews.ie

Schools

There are around 4,000 schools in Ireland, and by the end of the year, the Department of Education is due to publish a climate action mandate for the entire school sector.

This will detail decarbonisation measures which will be adopted by schools, a sector which will need to reduce emissions by 51% by 2030.

Additionally, a new National Strategy on Education for Sustainable Development, which looks at how the education sector can contribute towards efforts to create a more sustainable future, is due to be published in the first quarter of 2022, followed by the rollout of actions from the plan in the second quarter.

Later in the year, new resources for teaching children about climate will be sent to schools. A Climate Action Resource and accompanying lesson plans should be in place for senior classes in primary schools, while junior classes will be able to watch an animated video called “We Want Our Park Back”.

Before the year is out, the Department of Education should also have developed a communications strategy to “mark, celebrate and communicate” climate action in schools.

UCC’s Dr Hannah Daly said that schools will have to play a “huge role in the changes that are needed”.

“I’d love to see climate change and broader sustainability concepts brought in as a core part of the curriculum from primary right through to third level,” she said.

Climate change, environmental degradation and sustainability, we’re never going to fully solve them because they’re chronic conditions that we’ll need to figure out how to live with and how to manage if we’re going to sustain ourselves on the planet.

“Children now in school will be at the peak of their career in 2050, and that’s when massive changes will have to happen.

“We all need a very strong understanding of what the causes and impacts of climate change and sustainability issues are and what the solutions are.

“If we target schools, the children can bring a lot of learning back to the households and encourage households to take up actions as well. That’s very valuable to enable climate action across society.”

Emissions related to school transport is another area linked to the education sector where a difference could be made, according to Daly.

Many local areas lack public transport links to school or have no safe walking or cycling routes, meaning that the use of private cars dominates the school run.

“Travel to school is a really big driver of our national emissions. It’s estimated at about up to a fifth of our private transport emissions, which is really substantial,” Daly said.

She also noted that schools can be “a place where parents and teachers and children can advocate for safer streets so that they’re not reliant on the car”:

We’re locked into car use and it makes everything else more difficult – it creates traffic, it creates air pollution, it takes away freedom from kids, they can’t get around safely and it leads to parents driving them around.

“A lot of kids live in rural areas so we also need to look at school bus provision. It’s quite poor and it can be improved in terms of its accessibility, affordability and timetables.”

006 Return to school_90622326 Source: RollingNews.ie

Peatlands

To help meet Ireland’s overall target of cutting emissions in half by the end of the decade, 65,000 hectares of peatlands around the country are to be “rehabilitated” in the coming years.

The steps to reaching that goal include publishing a plan to restore 60 hectares of blanket bog in the Wicklow Mountains National Park in the second quarter of 2022 and plans for 40 hectares and 116 hectares of blanket bog in the Connemara and Glenamoy bog complexes respectively in the fourth quarter.

But taking a step back, the Government first needs to be clear about what it means by rehabilitation, according to Dr Florence Renou-Wilson, a lecturer and peatlands expert at UCD.

“This word ‘rehabilitation’ has been used and people are very confused about it,” she said.

“Rehabilitation can involve a large variety of practices and that’s why it needs to be clear.

“The government needs to make a statement on what they mean by ‘rehabilitation’ or they should use the appropriate wording, which is re-wetting, and that’s a very clear, straightforward definition given by the International Panel on Climate Change.”

‘Re-wetting’ is raising the water table - the underground area that is saturated with water, in soils that have been drained – and is considered crucial in terms of preventing carbon dioxide emissions.

“Reducing the emissions from our drained bogs is the only game in town at the moment,” Renou-Wilson explained

“The element carbon is in the peat, and if it’s wet it doesn’t move, it doesn’t budge. But if it’s drained and if there’s any oxygen near that carbon, it’s going to turn to CO2 and then it’s going to go back to the atmosphere.

All we need to do is to do the opposite, which is when you re-wet the bog, that carbon is back safe.

peat-cutting-for-fuel-roundstone-blanket-bog-connemara-county-galway-ireland-eu Peat cutting at Roundstone blanket bog in Galway Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The re-wetting of bogs has the power to sequester carbon – capturing it and storing it in the ground instead of the atmosphere – and the Climate Action Plan calls for further research to assess the potential of doing this by managing peatlands.

But while that would be a positive, Renou-Wilson said, it’s not a major solution to emissions.

“The sequestration card is really something we can definitely research more, but it’s not our ace card,” she said.

“It’s something that needs to be site-by-site specific. It’s going to need a lot of disciplines to meet and understand what’s going on.”

Re-wetting drained land sooner rather than later is also considered important, because the longer that soil is left dry, the less chance it has of withstanding the effects of climate change.

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“We need to seriously look at what is going to happen to those bogs in the future,” Renou-Wilson said.

“Are they going to be resilient to any future climate change? So far, [what we know is that] only the natural bogs and the ones that have been re-wetted for the longest time can be resilient.

“We need to get our act together to re-wet sooner rather than later because the longer they are re-wetted, the more resilient they will be, the more that we’re going to be adapted to having those carbon stores for the long-term.

“Otherwise we might be in a position where all this carbon is just going to be re-emitted regardless because of climate change and we don’t want to be in that position.”

Agriculture

Agriculture emissions rose by 1.4%, or 0.3 metric tonnes (Mt), in 2020 compared to 2019, following a trend that has seen them increase by 12% over the last ten years.

The EPA attributed last year’s increase to additional use of fertiliser nitrogen and higher numbers of dairy cows, other cattle, sheep and pigs, which can especially contribute to methane emissions.

The sector, which is responsible for the most greenhouse gases, has been targeted with the lowest change under the 2021 Climate Action Plan– a 22% to 30% reduction in emissions by 2030. 

The plan requires the Department of Agriculture to “produce detailed plans to manage the sustainable environmental footprint of the dairy and beef sectors” by the second quarter of 2022.

The Government’s existing plans for addressing high emissions from the sector in 2022 largely focus on making changes to fertilisers, feeds, and animal health and genetics.

This is in a bid to lower the production of nitrous oxide and methane, two harmful greenhouse gases.

Legislation on a Nitrates Action Programme, which would protect water from nutrient pollution due to agriculture, is due to be introduced early this year, along with work towards developing feed additives that could lower methane emissions. 

However, experts do not believe these changes could sufficiently lower the sector’s contribution to climate change.

“It’s worrying that a lot of the narrative from farm leaders is reliant on the prospect of technology innovations through genetics and feed additives to solve the problem,” UCC’s Dr Hannah Daly said.

Innovation is really important and promising, but a lot of these technologies are at the early stage of being developed and we don’t know what the cost is, how accessible they will be, how they impact food production and the bottom line for farmers. In my opinion, we simply can’t rely on these novel technology breakthroughs to meet the 2030 goal.

Daly also said that the Government must make a “plan for the agriculture sector which reconciles the need for farmers to make a living sustainably with environmental protection and climate action”.

“I think the clear win-win opportunities for the agriculture sector are farmers being paid for environmental and climate services such as using land for carbon sequestration or for habitat protection and that will naturally lead to a reduction in the stock density of cows.”

Similarly, John Gibbons said that without major changes, the sector will not be able to meet its end-of-decade target for reducing emissions – and could be in a worse position in 2030 than it was in 2010.

“At the moment, the sector is still pretending that this can be done with tweaks… that they can continue this expansionary programme in dairy and also bring down emissions through efficiencies,” he said.

“This has been looked at and the absolute maximum in a controlled situation on a per-farm basis is about a 13% emissions cut.

“That’s if you do everything right, which means every farm in the country doing everything right.

“Let’s be realistic and say that might deliver 7 to 10% over a decade. Everyone else has to deliver 50%, but in reality, if we’re lucky, agriculture might hit 7 to 10% in a decade having increased by 12% in the previous decade.

“We could find ourselves in a situation that Irish agriculture in 2030 is producing more emissions than in 2010.

“There is no way of small efficiency tweaks being able to deliver massive emissions reductions. The numbers have been done over and over again and it isn’t possible.

“The only way is to reverse the expansion that was put in place and at the moment that remains politically unpalatable.”

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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