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'We are on the road to nowhere': Are electric cars and chargers enough to cut our transport emissions?

Transport is a huge contributor to Ireland’s global emissions and tackling them is a major challenge.

Image: Shutterstock/Scharfsinn

Every morning this week, TheJournal.ie will publish an article on the international climate crisis and what it means for Ireland.

Is the country doing its part in the battle against global warming? And what effects will the efforts to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions have on Irish society?

AT THE LAUNCH of its much-anticipated Climate Action Plan in June, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and associated ministers arrived at Grangegorman in Dublin in a new hybrid Dublin Bus.

The public transport operator received its first three hybrid buses – which run on a mixture of diesel and electricity – in May, and the government took the opportunity to show them off.

“We want to pass our planet on to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it,” Varadkar tweeted.

But it wasn’t long before the opposition started picking holes in the government’s well-curated arrival. 

“I was a little taken today by the Government decamping from one side of the city to the other on one of three diesel hybrid buses which the State owns,” said Fianna Fáil’s climate spokesperson Timmy Dooley. 

It’s worth noting that in the last seven or eight months the State has bought 200 dirty diesel buses and today there is an effort to show that great green image.

Dooley was referring to purchases made by the National Transport Authority of buses over the past year.  

Fast forward to earlier this week, and Transport Minister Shane Ross tweeted an image of himself charging his electric car at a charge point in Marlay Park in south Dublin. 

“Who said there is a shortage of chargers for electric vehicles?” Minister Ross asked.

Look at what I found in sunny Marlay Park this morning! 

Ross later deleted the tweet when it was pointed out to him that the charger in question had been installed in May, but had yet to be switched on. Ross later issued a clarification saying he had “jumped the gun” and that the charger was due to be switched on in the coming weeks. 

Both incidents served to highlight the contrast between being seen to do something about Ireland’s environmental issues, and putting forward the policy and legislative changes needed to reduce the country’s emissions.

Transport 

The transport sector in Ireland is one the largest contributors to climate warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the country. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2017 just under 20% of Ireland’s GHG emissions came from the transport sector, making it the second largest contributor (behind agriculture). 

The biggest emitter in terms of transport is the private car, with over half of all our emissions coming from cars.

After that, the main contributors are:

  • Road freight (trucks and buses transporting goods) which accounts for about 20%;
  • Light goods vehicles (8%)

Buses and taxis make up 3% of total transport emissions, while rail travel makes up 1%. 

Getting around by car 

Transport in Ireland is dominated by the private car, with experts pointing towards unsustainable planning patterns and investment in road networks rather than public transport as the main reasons for this. 

“[Ireland] is on record as having the worst sprawl in Europe,” said David O’Connor of TU Dublin’s (formerly DIT) Environment and Planning department. 

O’Connor said this makes it hard to implement proper public transport solutions. 

People become car dependent and that has all sorts of knock-on effects for health, for socialising, but also the economy because it means people are stuck in traffic.

According to the transport department, there were 2.7 million vehicles on Irish roads at the end of last year, and 2.1 million of these were private cars. The number of cars in Ireland has more than trebled since the early 1980s, when the country’s first motorway was built. 

Of all the vehicles on Irish roads last year, 62% operated on diesel fuel while 36% operated on petrol, giving a total of 98%. 

Ireland imports 100% of these fuels, and burning of them to power vehicles is the main cause of the country’s transport GHG emissions. 

As well as this, the pollution from large amounts of car traffic causes issues around public health and the economy. A report earlier this year found that Dublin has one of the worst traffic congestion problems in Europe. 

Electric vehicles 

Electric vehicles are cars powered either entirely or in part from electricity, which significantly reduces the GHG emissions.

They can either be fully electric, in which case they need to be charged in order to operate, or they can be hybrid cars – powered in part by a battery and by petrol or diesel. 

In its Climate Action Plan, the government puts a large focus on getting people to switch to electric cars in order to reduce emissions from transport. 

One of the key actions of the plan is to:

Accelerate the take up of EV (electric vehicle) cars and vans so that we reach 100% of all new cars and vans being EVs by 2030.

The plan sets a target of 950,000 electric vehicles on Irish roads by 2030. 

According to the plan, this would mean that about one-third of all vehicles sold during the decade will be Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV) or Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV).

BEVs are fully electric and need to be charged either at home or at a designated charge point, while PHEVs can be charged either through an external source or by its engine.

The goal of 950,000 electric vehicles on Irish roads by 2030 is seen by experts as a big, if not impossible, challenge. Last year there were just 4,825 electric vehicles on Irish roads – just 0.18% of the total.

Sales of hybrid and electric cars have jumped significantly recently, going up by 68.5% so far this year, but are still a big distance from reaching 2030′s target.

“There is an interesting question whether their EV target is realistic,” said Sadhbh O’Neill, a UCD lecturer in environmental politics and a policy advisor. 

On the one hand – based on what’s being sold at the moment… to get to 950,000 seems absolutely ridiculous. 

However, O’Neill said that it could be the case that sales of EVs increase hugely over the next few years, and that “in one or two fleets you change the whole technology”. 

“But you’d be putting a lot of faith in it,” she said. 

Carrot and stick

To encourage uptake of EVs, the government is taking a carrot and stick approach, with incentives and grants on the one hand, and increased taxes on the other. 

People looking to buy an electric car can get a grant of up to €5,000 towards the cost, while those who own such a vehicle pay the lowest motor tax rate.

As things stand, it is also free to charge an EV at designated ESB charge points, but this is set to change in the coming months, with the ESB to announce the cost of charging in September. 

Even with this, experts point to significant barriers still in the uptake of electric vehicles, including the initial cost of buying and the lack of dedicated chargers across the country.  

At the other end there has been much talk and focus on increasing a carbon tax in the coming years. There is currently a tax on carbon at €20 per tonne, which adds to the cost of petrol, diesel and other fossil fuels.

The aim of the tax is to drive people away from fossil fuels and towards more renewable forms of energy. The government had planned to increase the tax in last year’s budget, but later decided against it. 

In its annual review this year, the Climate Change Advisory Council - which advises the government - recommended that the tax be raised to €35 a tonne in next year’s budget, and is raised to “at least €80 per tonne” by 2030.

“The revenue raised should be used to ensure a just transition to a low-carbon, climate-resilient and sustainable economy and society, protecting those on low incomes,” the council said.

In its final report, the Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action also recommended raising it to €80 per tonne, while environmentalists all agree it should be increased.

A commitment to increase the tax  is also set out in the government’s Climate Action Plan, but with no detail on how the target can be achieved. 

The government has been reluctant to raise the tax, but there are indications that the first rise towards that €80 target will be in this year’s budget. 

Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats all agree in principle to the carbon tax being raised (but with the proceeds going towards assisting people in making the transition to a low carbon lifestyle) 

Sinn Féin and further left-wing parties like Solidarity-PBP don’t support the tax being implemented. 

On top of all this, the Department of Expenditure and Reform earlier this month issued a warning to government that increasing numbers of electric vehicles “could pose a substantial risk to the stability of the State’s finances”.

The department warned that the growth projection of electric vehicles will result in €1.5 billion less revenue from motor tax, VAT and fuel oil tax between now and 2030.

Public transport 

While much of the government’s plan focuses switching to EVs, experts warn that this will not be enough to curb our emissions. 

“I think importantly we really need to look at our transport habits and shift away from fossil-fuel based transport to things like cycling and walking where that’s possible,” said Jim Scheer, head of Policy Insights and Design at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI).

And then look into public transport to cut down on car numbers.

Scheer said that changing technology was important, but that “the activity variable is one that we talk less about and is as important if not more”.

By this he means changing people’s habits away from driving cars.

This need to shift away from private vehicles and towards better public transport options is one echoed by environmentalists and members of the opposition. 

Ireland – along with every other EU nation – submitted draft National Energy and Climate Plans (NECPs) to the European Commision last year, outlining how it will cut GHG emissions in line with 2030 targets. 

The final version of these plans has to be submitted by the end of this year.  

European NGO Transport and Environment analysed these plans earlier this year, and found that Ireland’s plan was insufficient in terms of the transport sector. 

While a projected phasing out of diesel and petrol cars was welcomed, the NGO said, the country fell down in terms of its lack of detail on new public transport projects. 

“We are on the road to nowhere,” Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said earlier this year.

Not a single public transport project is under construction at the moment or due to start anytime soon. At the same time over 50 national roads are either being built or due to start soon.

Ryan pointed out that the National Development Plan launched by government last year, set out €10.2 billion being allocated to roads projects which outnumbered the amounts put forward for public transport. 

D4WXeanW4AA4utF Road projects underway or due to start in the coming years.

For environmentalists and planning experts, far more investment is needed in proper public transport options in order to lower our transport emissions.

“For Ireland to achieve its climate change targets, to build a decent quality of life and to maintain an acceptable standard of living for everyone there’s no doubt that we need to invest in well-planned public transport networks,” said David O’Connor of TU Dublin.

Road to the future

UCD lecturer Sadhbh O’Neill sees the investment in roads as running counter to ensuring a sustainable future for the country and the transport sector. 

“Once we sink our resources into roads, that determines everything. It determines the spatial planning policies, it determines where businesses are going to go, where the developers are going to build the houses,” she said. 

It determines everything. It will set out all the problems we are going to be left with for the next 100 years.

 O’Neill lives in Kilkenny town, an urban area with a population of about 27,000 people. 

“The town is choked with traffic,” she said.

“We are a Medieval town with huge numbers of tourists… and there are people spilling out onto the streets because the footpaths are so narrow.

The cars are lined up all the way from one end of the town to the other and it’s a constant traffic jam. 

O’Neill said that the town had been waiting for three years for a pilot urban bus scheme that still hadn’t arrived. 

“You would think at this stage that we’d be rolling out schemes like that… in every single urban area that has a population of a similar size or even smaller,” she said. 

But even in urban areas people are relying on cars because they don’t have other options. 
With reporting from Christina Finn 

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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