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Column Here's where we can make cuts – and savings! – that won’t hurt services, jobs or salaries

Cutting costly emissions from thousands of public buildings would help the environment and save Ireland €200m a year – without requiring a single job loss.

CLIMATE CHANGE IS happening. We can wait until the floodwaters reach all our doors before we really believe it and then panic because it’s too late. Or we can take urgent action now to improve our chances of a civilised future. This is not alarmism, it’s the consensus of 194 countries that have signed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) hugely detailed scientific reports on the available evidence.

The government’s long-promised Climate Bill is to set out Ireland’s plans to limit our greenhouse pollution. But what’s the record to date on cutting costly emissions from thousands of buildings whose energy is paid for by you and me – schools, hospitals, health centres, semi-state and local authority facilities? Their bill is at least €600 million a year, and unlike most other cuts, savings in this area won’t hurt services, jobs or salaries.

The good news is that the government’s policy is to cut public sector energy use by one third by 2020 compared to 2009 – meaning an extra €200m a year in the coffers. They know that the first €120m a year, or 20 per cent savings on energy use, can be achieved through behaviour change and low-tech improvements. The bad news is that, in spite of good projects run by OPW and others, progress is at a snail’s pace.

Urgent action is sadly lacking

“Pretty well all our public sector buildings are wasteful of energy, and this is especially true of our hospitals.” That’s what Pat Rabbitte TD said recently and, as Minister for Energy, he should know. His cabinet colleagues occasionally comment on climate change in convincingly serious tones – but as for urgent action to cut emissions and save money in their own public sector backyards, a vow of silence seems to be the consensus.

Tallaght Hospital has begun work with the OPW to save 18 per cent of its energy use over three years, equal to €4.3m or the cost of 18 acute hospital beds. Minister Rabbitte made his comments at the hospital last January, at the launch of the OPW’s expanded energy efficiency programme, which has seen up to 20 per cent savings in 250 buildings to date. So why is Minister for Health James Reilly not shouting from the rooftops about this golden opportunity for all hospitals to save money? He must know that the HSE spends at least €85m a year on heating, lighting, cooling and running computers across the health sector, so what’s his reticence on saving a handy €15–€20m as quickly as possible? Doesn’t he have a bit of a problem meeting his bills and getting patients off waiting lists?

What’s needed is an energy management plan

The OPW has found that, left to their own devices, administrative offices use a staggering 54 per cent of their energy outside office hours, instead of the 25 per cent that would be acceptable to keep computer servers and other systems going at night and weekends. Their experience also shows that cutting emissions and costs isn’t just a case of exhorting staff to turn off the lights. What’s needed is an energy management plan in every workplace that includes the use of software providing live meter data on how much is being used at all times, an energy committee to coordinate implementation, and a will to involve staff in coming up with creative ideas for change.

We’ve all sweltered in stuffy hospital waiting rooms and trains; we’ve seen classroom and college windows open while radiators are at full blast; and we’ve got angry over any number of cutbacks in health, education and other services. Isn’t it time we put pressure on the government to save us money while making the planet a safer place to live?

Schools spend an estimated €70m a year on energy costs and, like hospitals, they’re chronically short of money. But Energy in Education, a website launched in late 2012 to enable them to make efficiencies has been used by fewer than 300 of our 4,200 schools. Here are a few examples of individual school savings:

  • €1,500 a year saved by installing low-cost light sensors in corridors where lights used to be left on during daylight hours,
  • €1,344 a year saved by setting PCs on hibernate instead of standby mode at night,
  • €500 a year saved by an education centre that installed 7-day time clocks on two vending machines and switching them off during holidays.

How serious is Government about the big picture?

Many other schools are raising energy awareness through the popular Green Flag scheme. But there are no national figures on emissions or public money saved as a result, nor is there an obligation on every school management boards to have an energy management plan. Meanwhile, Minister Ruairí Quinn rarely mentions the issue in speeches or interviews.

There are 10,000 public sector buildings and facilities in Ireland, run by government departments and local authorities as well as semi-state companies such as Iarnród Éireann, the airport authorities, RTÉ and the ESB. The government’s policy is contained in NEEAP, the National Energy Action Plan, and the 2020 targets were set in 2009 so we’re almost halfway there in terms of years. According to SEAI, the Sustainable Energy Authority, the plan is to save 3 per cent a year over ten years; but SEAI itself has been promising for the past year to publish basic data from 2011 on energy use by the 100 largest public sector bodies. So we’re halfway to the target year but there’s no reliable information on just how slowly the snail is moving.

SEAI is not short of good plans and schemes. Individuals and organisations such as OPW have come up with great projects. The difficulty, as so often in Ireland, is making change happen according to a systematic and urgent plan. Dublin Friends of the Earth has been trying to highlight this issue for some time. The IPCC reports on the climate crisis remind us that public sector energy use is only a small part of the jigsaw. But it shows whether the Government is serious about the big picture or not.

A report by Dublin Friends of the Earth entitled ‘Cuts That Don’t Hurt’ is available here.

Anna Heussaff is a member of Dublin Friends of the Earth.

Follow Opinion & Insight on Twitter: @TJ_Opinions

Read: “There is no plan B”: EU targets major carbon emitters to reduce emissions

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