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Opinion: When it comes to climate change, is the petroleum industry the only 'bad guy'?

Climate change is undeniable, writes the head of petroleum industry grouping, and we all have a hand in it.

Image: Shutterstock/muratart

RECENTLY I WAS invited onto RTÉ radio to represent the views of the Irish Petroleum Industry Association on the government’s plan to halt climate change.

“Are you for real RTÉ?” cried one wag on Twitter. “[We’ll have] the Plutonium for Breakfast Association now with some views on cancer screening.”

Sometimes, one can only concede defeat to a wittier opponent, but the comment is indicative of a much wider misguided view that the petroleum industry should have no part in any climate change debate.

I say misguided because it assumes that the petroleum companies want business as usual; that we are reluctant to change; and that we comprise a large group of climate change deniers; that we have no personal investment in protecting the environment.

These are false assumptions that, if not challenged, could lead to the silencing of people and companies with a lot to offer. The petroleum industry acknowledges that the world must address climate crisis. We believe that, together, we can arrest the harm that we are causing our environment, but our window of opportunity is very limited. There is no time to waste for showboating.

‘Showboating’

And let’s be frank, there is a great deal of showboating going on. The government’s Climate Action Plan was published recently, and it shifted Ireland’s target for electric vehicles (EV) from 520,250 to 936,200, by 2030. However, it didn’t shift Ireland’s ability to achieve this ambition. There is no plan, for example, to enhance our electricity infrastructure to provide a matching increase in capacity.

And Ireland’s ambitions are not always mindful of their international implications. The mining of the cobalt needed for electric vehicle batteries continues to rely on child labour and the harvesting of the necessary lithium has nasty environmental consequences.

Targets are often a way of postponing action, or indeed, a substitute for action. Readers should be reminded of another target that was set by a previous energy minister, Eamon Ryan of the Green Party. It called for 240,000 electric vehicles on Irish roads by 2020. With six months to go before the deadline, we remain 230,000 vehicles short of the mark.

But before we shake our heads at government inaction in the face of the global climate crisis, let’s consider our own personal responsibilities. How many of us are prepared to forgo a city break, or holiday in the sun, to reduce our carbon footprints? The carbon emissions of return economy flights to Mallorca for a family of four, for example are likely to dwarf those created by a modern diesel car in an entire year of average motoring.

Members of the Irish Petroleum Industry Association (IPIA) have, of course a vested interest in continuing to sell fuels. But we have a greater vested interest in the protection of our planet; our home.

We are committed to playing our part in the transition to a low carbon, climate resilient, and environmentally-sustainable Ireland.

‘The bad guys’

That is why IPIA members have installed more EV charging points than any other player in Ireland. It is why we prevent 330,000 tonnes of carbon emissions in Ireland every year by blending biofuel into petrol and diesel. It’s why the global oil industry invests billions every year into researching zero-carbon advanced, synthetic and bio-fuels. Do you really consider it wise to silence us?

Yet we are seen as the bad guys. Zealots will tell you that fossil fuels have no role to play anymore, so our views should not be listened to. But even the most hardline opponents of our industry accept that

Ireland will continue to rely on oil until 2050 at the earliest (although the dependence will reduce year by year). Surely it is sensible that whatever fossil fuels we do require are used with maximum efficiency.

Let’s think about the hundreds of thousands of Irish homes which will require deep-retrofitting to be “heat pump-ready”. Very few families are in a position to invest the tens of thousands of euro it would take to allow them to ditch their fossil fuel heating system and yet the SEAI will offer no support for them to update to a condensing boiler which can reduce emissions by up to 50%. They insist that we aim for impossible perfect rather than the attainable good. We talk about a journey to carbon neutrality but refuse to take effective first steps.

And let’s put things in context: if every internal combustion engine in the world disappeared overnight, we would reduce carbon emissions by just 8%.

The problem of climate change has may causes and requires us all to address it in many complementary ways. There is no time to lose. It is a time for open, honest and respectful dialogue; a united front taking on a common threat.

Kevin McPartlan is the Chief Executive Officer of the Irish Petroleum Industry Association.

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