20 May Ireland moves from laggard to leader in addressing climate and biodiversity crises
Eamon Ryan, Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, and Minister for Transport, introduces measures that are supporting clean energy, transportation and digital revolutions
The Irish government has made strong commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 30 percent by 2030, to deliver 70 percent renewable energy and to reach 32.5 percent energy efficiency by 2030. Last October, the government made a further step in this direction voting in an ambitious Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill. As leader of Ireland’s Green Party, can you summarize Ireland’s main action lines and hurdles when it comes to cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions?
Ireland’s emissions decreased by 4 percent in 2019 and are forecast to have decreased by 6 percent in 2020 due to the reduced transport emissions during the pandemic and, to some extend as well, to the move away from coal and peat-fired electricity generation. Our intention is to go from being a laggard to being a leader in this area, and I think we can. Actually, our ambition has even increased in the last year, like the European Union (EU) is increasing its ambition. We are going now for 50-percent reduction by 2030. That’s radical ambition, because it’s halving the emissions in a decade.
What gives me confidence is that we have taken some measures in the last two years that show commitment. We have stopped fracking; we have put a ban on fracking. Although we have some potential shale resources, we said no: we won’t touch those for good environmental reasons. We stopped issuing new oil and gas licenses, so there will be no more exploration for oil and gas. We changed our sovereign investment fund so it will no longer invest in fossil fuels—we were the first country to make that divestment pledge. In recent weeks, two of our peat-fired power stations closed for good. We are radically reducing, and within a short number of years will stop, our coal- and peat-fired power generation, so there will be no more electricity from coal or peat. That is very significant for emissions reductions, but is also a sign of intent.
At the same time, we are probably one of the leading countries in the integration of renewable power. We have about 40 percent of our electricity coming from wind. That’s all variable power, so it’s a real achievement to know how to balance that. Now we will go further to make it 70 percent in the next decade. One of the main critical projects will be the development of offshore wind—we will add some 5 GW in the Irish Sea to the east. The real ambition is to develop floating offshore wind around the coast in particular. Ireland’s sea area is 10 times our land area, and that represents a huge potential economic development, because it’s a very windy place. Ireland is also building a new interconnector with France and a new interconnector with the U.K. Those will give us the opportunity to export power, to balance power, to share power. That’s probably one of the biggest economic projects that we have before us and it gives me confidence that we can achieve real significant changes.
We’ve stopped the harvesting of peat. Peat is an organic material developed over maybe 5,000 or 10,000 years, which is compact in mass and builds up in very wet boggy conditions. Historically, we were using it for burning, for power generation and for heating. But we’re stopping the extraction of that peat. We have replaced these jobs with new jobs to rewet the bogs in order to reintroduce bog land. That is a very effective way of storing carbon, improving biodiversity and creating employment: that is the kind of example that everyone’s looking for to adjust for energy transition.
Another thing we are doing at scale is ramping up the retrofitting of buildings. We have set aside €286 million, targeted at social housing and low-income housing particularly, to retrofit housing for energy efficiency. This improves health, but also creates lot of employment—and really good high-quality employment over several decades. We’re going to do every single building, every single house; that gives us a pathway. If solar is the first big project, this retrofitting project is the next one.
Transport is another sector that you oversee. Can you give us a brief analysis of the sector, how you see the future of public transport and how it will recover from the crisis?
Transport has been our weakness, partly because our country has been growing so much—we have one of the fastest-growing populations in the EU as we have a high birthrate and a large number of people moving into the country. One of the things the new government is doing is switching its spending, so that investment in new public transport now has to be twice the investment made into new roads—we’ve switched to transport-led development. Secondly, we have allocated 20 percent of our overall budget to fund walking and cycling lanes. This radical investment is pushed by an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recommendation, which we accepted and are now putting it into place. COVID is providing a good momentum to switch to walking and cycling particularly. They improve sustainability, improve health and improve community in my mind. It’s really radical.
As the minister responsible for environmental issues and the Green Party leader, what sorts of strategies do you have in mind to promote sustainable agriculture and biodiversity?
We have a completely new land-use plan for the country, which looks at every aspect: agriculture, forestry, rewilding, rural development and so on—how do you plan really vibrant rural communities, how will they be paid for storing carbon in our soil, be that in farming or in forestry or in reversing bogs, how do we improve water quality as we’re doing that, how do we restore biodiversity as we’re doing that?
What is really important to understand is it’s a biodiversity crisis, as well as a climate crisis. What people call nature-based solutions, where you engage in new forms of forestry, isn’t just about storing carbon, but it is also about creating a really rich forest, a rain forest on the Atlantic I would call it. Imagine a forest that is full of wildlife, which is not just for growing timber, not just for storing carbon, but is also creating that environment with high-quality water, high-quality biodiversity and is good for community. For that, you need a land-use plan to tell you where to put the forest. In addition, our peatlands cover 20 percent of our land; so that land-use plan is key to managing them. Central to our approach is paying a young generation—our farmers, foresters and other people—to look after nature. The new EU Common Agricultural Policy gives us the opportunity to do that, as does our land-use plan: it says, here are the environmental services we want, we will have to pay for them and that will inspire a new generation of young people to work on the land, to be the heroes in climate change, to be the frontline in both managing climate change and also reversing its worst potential.
Ireland, as you mentioned, has developed an expertise in onshore wind and that pretty much dominates the renewable sector. What are you doing to promote further development in renewables?
We’ve just introduced a new scheme for microgeneration that allows householders to sell power back to the grid. This is connected to the retrofitting of houses that I mentioned. Our heating has to go fossil free; we have to stop burning all fossil fuels. I think the form of heating that’s going to develop will be heat pumps, air-sourced heat pumps. They are everywhere now, and really efficient in converting the differential between the heat outside a house and inside, and using that heat difference to heat exchange—warming water inside the house, which heats the radiators and heats the home. That’s the big technological innovation coming in heating.
In transport, the big technological innovation will be to switch to electric vehicles. That’s also connected to the home, because most Irish housing is semi-detached houses with front and back gardens, so most cars will be in the front drive or outside the house. They will have to be charged so, together with heat pumps, that will increase the demand for household electricity to 10-15 kW. If you have a row of houses, all with heat pumps and electric cars, you have a real challenge to manage the distribution system, to get the electricity to those houses. Part of it will be done through solar panels on the houses’ roofs and part of it will be battery-storage units in the home. But also, it will be through really innovative switching on and off of devices in the home, and for the electric vehicle or heat pump, so that when the variable wind comes and goes, we can store that wind power in hot water in the home, for example, or in the battery of the car. Those batteries in cars will become energy storage devices, because we have so much of this wind power.
My department is responsible for communications, energy and transport. There are three technological revolutions taking place in the world at the moment: in digital, in clean energy and in transport. All three connect because anyone who works in the energy transition realizes that you need data management to manage that balancing capability. Similarly, anyone who works in the digital revolution realizes you need clean energy to keep the servers working, because otherwise it’s not sustainable. Similarly in transport, where the revolution is in electrification of transport. So the clean energy coming from wind power is critical to the transport revolution, as is the digital transition that’s taking place, because car sharing, charging, knowing where to charge and so on is all managed by digital means.
So this industry revolution, in my mind, is in this balancing between variable supply and variable demand—and it is millions of heat pumps, fridges, car batteries and so on switching on and off, so that the distribution system can get this variable power used in a very sustainable way. Now that’s not very sexy—it’s all about balancing on wires—but whoever is good at that will be good in this clean, digital, low-carbon-transport economy. This is the key thing we need to learn and get right, not only in Ireland but everywhere: balancing zero-carbon variable power, leading the digital clean energy transfer revolutions and how those are integrated. I think we will be good at this because we have to be. We have so much variable wind, and we’re already doing it.
Ireland is one of the few countries that taxes all carbon fuels. Its carbon tax was introduced in 2010 and it’s due to go up in 2021. What’s been the effect of this tax?
We’ve committed to increase our carbon tax every year, this is now in the law. The increase is on a gradual basis, it will increase automatically by €200 a ton without having to go into the budget vote. The revenues from it will be split in three ways. Over half goes on the retrofitting of housing, to put in the insulation, solar panels, heat pumps, car charging points and so on, so houses are fit for purpose. Roughly one-third goes to increase social welfare contributions to make sure that those budgets are progressive; that there is no socially disadvantage in any group. The remainder goes for paying the young farmers to manage the land, to help in agroforestry, protect biodiversity and our grassland-based system, for example, and we pay our farmers for that.
After COVID-19, Brexit is the second painful reality that Ireland has to address this year. How has your ministry worked to prepare Ireland’s transport nodes to face the 12-fold surge in customs declarations resulting from Brexit, and how have the transportation and energy sectors adjusted to the new situation?
We are only a short period into the transition. Brexit is not welcomed; we didn’t vote for it—it wasn’t our vote, it was their vote—but it was met with real regret and still is. We benefited from our joint membership of the EU. Our relationship with the U.K. improved immensely, partly because of that, I think. So it’s still a regret, but we have to manage the situation, so we do.
There are real complications. When you come out from a single market that we’ve both been in, you just can’t avoid the fact that it’s not as easy to trade. There are customs rules that you have to apply, which will never be completely smooth. It’s far from ideal, but we have to manage. We haven’t had shortages on Irish shelves so far nor has there been any real crisis, but it is awkward, expensive and complicated, particularly because we’re facing this at the same time as COVID-19. We’ve had to adjust to testing hauliers as they go through U.K. and into France, for example; that adds a complication.
80 percent of our ferry traffic historically went directly between Britain and Ireland, 11 percent historically went from Ireland through Britain into the continent. What we call the land bridge. And 9 percent historically went directly to France, Belgium, Holland or Spain—a direct connection. We won’t know for some time what the end point will be, but it will probably increase that last supply chain: the direct routes to Cherbourg, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge will all increase because of the complications of going through the U.K.
In trade directly with the U.K., it’s complicated even further in our case because we have Northern Ireland on the same island as us. The EU has set different provisions for Northern Ireland to the rest of the U.K., so that it has different access to the single market compared to the rest of the U.K. We have to manage port traffic, port customs and so on in a different way than you would a ferry going from Holland to the east coast of England. It’s hard to know yet what the end pattern will be because some of that traffic freighted from Northern Ireland goes through Dublin—some traffic at the moment is going through Belfast and down to Dublin. It’s changing up all sorts of complicated patterns. We will manage it and it won’t stop good relations between the two countries. It’s our job now to make it work.
With regard to energy, we need to balance between Ireland and Britain but also between Britain and France. We’re part of a wider balancing system. The good news is that not only are we building an electricity interconnector between France and Ireland, but the French and British also just opened a new interconnector to trade electricity. So despite Brexit, in certain areas you’ll see cooperation continuing, because Britain will not be able to balance its variable power supply on its own; it would be incredibly expensive and incredibly inefficient. We will still have to work collaboratively in energy. We’ll still have to work collaboratively in climate and environment matters as well. The environment doesn’t know boundaries: air pollution moves across borders, water pollution too and fish also move from one area to another—therefore, if you don’t cooperate on the environment, it won’t work. So, whatever Brexit brings, it has to bring continuing collaboration.
A new administration is in place in the U.S. with a very climate-centric President of Irish decent. Do you foresee new cooperation areas or partnerships opening up with the U.S. in the near future?
Critically, we go into this year with a seat on the United Nations (UN) Security Council, which we don’t have by right. But we are also co-chairing the working group on climate security in the Security Council in this critical year leading up to the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26. Our manifesto for getting that seat on the Security Council was to stand up for small island states and for the less developed countries, because we have that tradition going back in our history: a tradition for missionaries, tradition from being colonized rather than a colonizer. So we have a certain perspective.
On the climate front, what we will be doing is working with John Kerry, who’s President Biden’s climate envoy, but also with President Biden himself, with the clear realization that security comes from climate action, climate adaptation and, particularly as we are advancing into COP26, that we invest collectively—Europe and America—in climate adaptation and resilience in those less-developed countries and small island states. That’s critical because they’re the first to be hit by climate harm, and also it’s the right investment. It’s moving to recognizing that this is the new economy, this is the better food system, this is the better energy system, this is the better system in every way.
By investing in that, we tackle not just the climate but we give stability around food production, which has always been a huge problem in many parts of the world. We give stability around migration issues, which has been a huge concern in Europe. If we don’t have climate stability, we won’t have those other areas of stability and so it’s in everyone’s interest that we do invest in that. One of our roles will be working with the Biden administration to put that at center stage in the UN General Assembly this September and at the Food Systems Summit, which will take place at the same time.
What would be your final message for our readers?
Ireland is good at getting out of crisis. We can and will get out of this one. We will show that it is possible, but it’s collaboration that works. I hope we might show the example. We are a small island with relatively connected people and we start to come out of this crisis though good collaboration, just looking after each other and our health system. But more than anything else, we need to then apply that collaboration in the bigger crisis to come—the climate and biodiversity crisis. That collaboration is an international one: this is not a time for retrenchments, protectionism or putting up the shutters and leaving people behind. The lesson a small country like ours can learn and show is that we get out of crisis with collaboration: we face the next crisis with international collaboration and a small country like Ireland is showing the way.