Saturday 1 October 2016

We built Ardnacrusha, but now we're slaves to fossil fuels

Laura Burke

Published 11/05/2016 | 02:30

Two of the greatest achievements of the Ireland that emerged after 1916 were in energy - ie, building the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power station (which produced 80pc of Ireland's electricity in the 1930s) and rural electrification
Two of the greatest achievements of the Ireland that emerged after 1916 were in energy - ie, building the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power station (which produced 80pc of Ireland's electricity in the 1930s) and rural electrification

The hard physical realities of climate change are difficult and unavoidable. Warming of the climate system is undeniable. The human influence is clear. The impacts are apparent across all continents and oceans.

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Many changes are essentially irreversible and projected to increase.

The question is how do we deal with this challenge? The national policy position is quite straight forward, to reduce carbon by at least 80pc by 2050, achieve effective neutrality for agriculture and land use and make Ireland resilient to the increasing impacts of climate change.

This is closely aligned with what science says is essential to stabilise our climate system.

It is largely mirrored in the global transformation envisaged in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which also recognises that there is an onus on developed countries to lead on actions and in providing solutions.

The national policy statement is scientifically and technically correct. However, it lacks the underlying human dimension central to its achievement. That human dimension, a population fully engaged in the vision of a competitive, low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy, is both compelling and positive.

Envisaging the future requires standing back from the present, and taking a cold look at the state we are in. Only then can we envision the future.

Two of the greatest achievements of the Ireland that emerged after 1916 were in energy - ie, building the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric power station (which produced 80pc of Ireland's electricity in the 1930s) and rural electrification.

In a sense, these were possible due to the newness of the technologies and the absence of infrastructure.

But these changes were visionary and constituted a major investment for the future.

Similar visionary thinking is needed for the Ireland of today in a remarkably vulnerable world on the verge of massive changes, if actions on climate change are to be effective.

Ireland is rich in renewable energy resources, yet is almost 90pc dependent on imported fossil energy. Many citizens live in energy poverty or find keeping their homes warm a financial strain. Our places of work, learning and leisure are costly energy sieves. Our transport systems pollute the air we breathe in the streets of our cities and towns.

Do we want this to continue? Stabilising our climate requires net-zero carbon dioxide emissions in this century. A fourth industrial revolution must lead to decarbonisation of current energy systems which will then look completely different from our current energy system. This transition will provide massive opportunities.

Such a transformation will entail costs, as did building Ireland's new energy systems in the last century. The vision has to include empowering citizens and communities to take ownership of their energy solutions within a dynamic transition from centralised to local management which enables energy security and resilience.

The co-ops, group water schemes and bodies such as the GAA provide lessons for this.

Ireland, with its abundant resources, technological know-how, innovative people and communities can be a leader in piloting and deployment of the clean energy solutions that we and the world need.

The alternative is not just continuing a costly and poisonous dependence on fossil energy.

Science has outlined the remarkable changes that are projected to take place here and globally if we do not urgently address climate change. They include flooding of major coastal cities, undermining of global food production and the compromising of normal human activities in many regions.

Some may perceive the idea of the 'warming' of the globe as positive but Ireland will never have a Mediterranean climate. We are a North Atlantic country and it is the changes in that ocean that will dominate our climate.

One change will become increasingly evident in the coming years and decades. That is the rising of the sea level. As an island state, our coastal assets, both human and natural, are going to be increasingly threatened. It is in our national interest that global actions on climate are effective.

The Stone Age ended before we ran out of stones, and the fossil fuel age needs to end before we run out of fossil fuels.

There are barriers, including the existing lock-in to fossil energy infrastructures and thinking.

However, Ireland can lead on the sun-setting of the fossil era and bask in the sunrise of a clean energy future.

The first step is to understand that acting on climate change and becoming more sustainable is not a penance or a punishment - it enhances our quality of life individually and collectively, and will build the sustainable economy of the future.

Laura Burke is Director General of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Irish Independent

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