Friday 30 September 2016

Don't dodge the green issues, Mr Kenny - they're actually a golden opportunity

Norman Crowley

Published 18/05/2016 | 02:30

Enda Kenny. Photo: Getty
Enda Kenny. Photo: Getty

This week, Nasa announced that April 2016 was the hottest April on record globally, and that the latest figures smashed the previous record for April by the largest margin ever recorded.

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In fact, the last three months of temperature increases have broken records by the highest margins ever. When we couple this data with the fact that the new Programme for Government barely mentions climate change, this might be a good opportunity to write to our newly re-elected Taoiseach on the largest challenge that currently faces mankind.

The job of being green while trying to win votes is a tricky one, with lots conflicting issues.

We need to lower our agriculture-related emissions, and yet we need to expand our dairy herd to compete globally.

We need to create more green energy, but wind turbines can be a blight on the landscape and, to compound this, we already have 30pc over-capacity in electricity generation.

We need to use our cars less, but we need to support the motor industry, which delivers jobs and tax income.

Gas fracking could generate valuable revenue and jobs, but could also wreck our water supply.

Is it any wonder that none of our politicians ever want to mention the elephant in the room, or, in Ireland's case, the methane-belching cow?

Like most problems in life, however, this challenge can also be an opportunity.

To highlight the opportunity, let's start with one where everybody wins. In 2014, we in Crowley Carbon went to the trouble of calculating how much money the Government could generate by implementing energy efficiency solutions in its own buildings, while also encouraging businesses to do the same.

We used the State's own figures to ensure accuracy. The punchline is that the Government could upgrade all its hospitals, prisons and offices to a more efficient and comfortable standard - and release an extra €500m in energy savings to the Exchequer.

Despite being confronted with these figures, the Government has claimed that a lack of money is the reason for the slow progress on efficiency. Despite this, large European funds that were set aside for energy efficiency remain unspent.

Next, let's tackle the cow in the room, agriculture. Our agricultural emissions are responsible for around 30pc of our total greenhouse gases and at the same time, we need to expand - not contract - our agribusiness.

When it was introduced in Germany, anaerobic digestion (AD) delivered valuable additional income to small farms, and also got rid of farm waste. But we have almost no farm-scale AD plants in Ireland.

Supplements in cattle feed have been proven to reduce methane emissions by 30pc, and at minimal cost. We are never going to beat the largest farms in the world in terms of prices for our farm produce. By trying to compete on scale, we are losing more and more people from the land.

The solution must be in low-carbon quality, and not quantity. Maybe the solutions can be found by using our 'green' brand, our imagination and our technology to get a win for everyone.

The increase in car sales in the last couple of years and our love of one-off houses far away from public transport both highlight the challenge we face on low-carbon transport.

However, the increased range and sophistication of electric cars, coupled with their dramatically reduced running costs, may mean that external market forces will push us to a greener future.

Of course, electric cars are only green if we have a green grid, and while we have no shortage of power generation in Ireland, 80pc of the energy we consume still comes from coal, oil and gas.

With the cost reduction and efficiency improvements that are coming on stream with solar energy, we cannot ignore this opportunity any longer.

When I talk to people in Ireland about the solar opportunity, many laugh because of our obsession with the weather - and rain in particular. You may be shocked to know that, for generating hot water, the latest solar systems rely on daylight rather than sunshine. As bad as the weather gets here, we still have daylight.

When you combine this with the fact that solar panel efficiency (the rate by which a panel converts sunlight to electricity) is increasing dramatically every year, then maybe Ireland has a solar future.

Resolving the low-carbon energy question is a complex problem. We need to keep the cost of energy low in order to be competitive, and the current lower oil prices do not improve the case for low-carbon solutions.

However, the lower costs of solar and ageing fossil fuel plants that need to be replaced anyway may hold the solution.

I don't have all the answers, but clogging our cities with more cars, losing more farmers from the land while we try to compete on price with global food companies, buying coal and oil when the largest energy generator we know of beams from the sky and wasting 40pc of the energy we buy seem to be the kind of silly things that a new government should tackle.

So my message to the Taoiseach is: Stop sweeping the low-carbon opportunity under the rug… it's not as scary as you think.

Norman Crowley is founder and chief executive of Crowley Carbon

Irish Independent

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