From car-free neighbourhoods to cycle superhighways, Ireland looks set for a lifestyle revolution by the middle of this century, when we have committed to cut our greenhouse emissions to zero. Kim Bielenberg looks to the future
Over the past century, we have experienced dramatic changes in our way of life, from deep recessions to the Celtic Tiger boom and the arrival of the internet to the financial crash and the disruption of pandemic.
The next revolution will arise from ecological necessity: we have promised to play our part in the global effort to avert climate catastrophe.
Under Government plans, Ireland intends to become carbon neutral by 2050. That could bring about the most dramatic change of lifestyle of all.
Reaching ‘net zero’ as an emitter means we might still produce some carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, but we would have to compensate by removing an equivalent amount from the atmosphere.
So, how will life change in this carbon neutral world order? By 2050, it will mean the end of gas-guzzling internal combustion engines; there will be no petrol stations, because there will be no petrol to sell; and fireside chats warmed by logs or peat briquettes will be a distant memory.
Instead, we will be powered by wind energy through turbines that will increasingly dominate the horizon on land and at sea; there will be tens of thousands of solar panels on rooftops and on farms, and even waves will be harnessed to keep the lights on and our homes heated.
While cars will be run on electric power, they may be discouraged from entering many urban areas as pre-eminence is given to cyclists and pedestrians. And the person in the driving seat may not be paying too much attention to the road, because cars should be able to drive themselves — at least part of the way.
As urban dwellers are encouraged to embrace the idea of the 15-minute city or the liveable village, the countryside will change as more trees are grown, bogs are rewetted as carbon sinks and farmers are increasingly cast as environmental managers as well as food producers.
We could do everything right, and get a squeaky clean green badge for reducing CO2 emissions to net zero by New Year’s Day 2050, but there are no guarantees that other countries will follow suit.
This places us in danger of dramatic changes to the weather. Even if the world co-operates to cut emissions, there is still likely to be increased risk of floods, rising sea levels and summer droughts.
Reversing our car culture
The most notable change we will notice when we enter a town or city in 2050 will be the almost eerie quietness of the streets and freshness of the air.
The sale of new petrol and diesel engines is due be banned by 2030, and this should ensure that the entire fleet of private cars will run on electricity or other forms of renewable energy by 2050. All public transport will be electrified.
William Walsh, chief executive of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, says 66pc of transport to work is by car but this is likely to fall by 2050 as more people work from home or in local hubs. He predicts that fewer people will own cars as public transport is made more available, cycling infrastructure improves and drivers opt to rent vehicles.
Experts in transport planning envisage villages or suburbs where cars are pushed to the margins. “It’s not about stopping people driving,” says Lorraine D’Arcy, lecturer in the School of Transport at Technological University Dublin. “It’s about making the most sustainable choice the easiest.”
She says we could move to a model close to that of the Vauban suburb of Freiburg in Germany, where cars are parked on the edge of the area, and are only brought next to the home for, say, dropping off or picking up children and groceries.
Children play and cycle freely on the streets, and cars have to be driven at a very low speed.
Sadhbh O’Neill, lecturer in climate policy at Dublin City University, says we should develop a model of liveable towns where cars are removed from the streets and where children can play and walk to shops and schools.
The concept is to improve quality of life by creating cities where everything a resident needs can be reached within a quarter of an hour by foot or bike. The 15-minute city concept requires minimal travel between homes, workplaces, restaurants, parks, hospitals and cultural venues. Under this model, each neighbourhood should fulfil six social functions: living, working, supplying, caring, learning and enjoying.
Dr D’Arcy prefers the notion of the liveable village, where everything is accessible, to the idea of the 15-minute city.
“It could be a rural village or an area of a city,” she says. “We have already seen in the pandemic that people are reconnecting with their communities. Their homes are not just places to sleep.”
Smaller, energy-efficient homes
One of the Government’s biggest challenges is to adapt existing homes by 2050 so that they are heated by renewable energy. At the moment, Irish homes use 7pc more energy than the EU average and emit 58pc more CO2. In 2019, they were 70pc reliant on fossil fuels, including oil-fired boilers.
By 2050, new and retrofitted homes will tend to be equipped with heat pumps that work by converting energy from the air outside the home into heat inside.
Once the initial outlay has been made, William Walsh of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland believes homes will be healthier and warmer.
Sadhbh O’Neill of DCU says new housing will be built at higher density, homes will be smaller and less of the space between buildings will be devoted to car travel and parking.
However, higher density will not mean vast tower blocks, but apartment buildings of four to six storeys, interspersed with smaller developments.
Walsh says homes are more likely to be built from sustainable materials such as wood.
A growing number of neighbourhoods of dense housing will be able to rely on district heating. “District heating is already common in other parts of the world,” Walsh says.
“The heat generated in a heat and power plant close to the apartment blocks is piped into homes. Effectively, the cost of having one heater that heats [a number of] apartments is much lower than having 150 systems running in a block or a number of blocks.”
The heat for these systems could come from a variety of sources. There is already a project being developed to draw heat from an Amazon data centre in Tallaght, Co Dublin. Pipes that will carry hot water to buildings around the centre of Tallaght are still being laid and the system is expected to run from next spring.
Initially, it will serve council buildings, Technological University Dublin’s Tallaght campus and 133 affordable homes to be built on public land. The incinerator at Ringsend will also become a source of district heating close to Dublin city centre.
By 2050, we will rely on renewable energy and most of this will come from wind and solar farms, says Walsh.
There will be better storage options for wind energy, making it easier to supply the national grid, and wave energy is likely to be seen as a viable source of power.
“One of the advantages of wave energy is that it is less intermittent,” says Walsh. “You don’t have to wait for the wind to blow or the sun to shine.”
Farms of solar panels will increasingly become a feature of the landscape. The single largest solar farm in the Republic was recently opened near Kinsale, Co Cork, to supply power to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical plant.
Built by the Irish-owned company Enerpower, the farm has 13,000 solar panels on a 16-acre site.
In some areas, communities have tried to take power into their own hands, hoping to supply energy to the grid. Community energy projects have been slow to get off the ground, because of red tape, but could be more common by 2050.
In Templederry, Co Tipperary, residents set up their own windfarm as early as 2012, and even have their own utility, Community Power. Among the driving forces of the project were the Fogarty family, with father John helping to set up the project, which is promoted by his daughter Sarah.
The group started selling electricity to the grid in November 2012, and all dividends from the community-owned project will be reinvested in local activities.
“The windfarm is run along co-operative principles and the benefits to the country of this type of project are huge,” John Fogarty says. “It means that whatever money does accrue from our small project stays in the local economy, rather than going abroad.”
Sadhbh O’Neill of DCU advocates the development of cycle superhighways to enhance carbon-free transport in 2050.
A network of these routes is being developed in Denmark and the idea is to increase the number of commuters who cycle from 5km to 30km every day by improving access and safety.
Greenways have been introduced across Ireland, but they are mainly targeted at leisure cyclists and tourists.
“We need to have more special cycle routes, particularly for commuters, and these could connect towns,” O’Neill says.
She says the emergence of e-bikes as a popular form of transport is a game-changer and they have enabled people to get around at faster speeds and over longer distances.
One option for traffic planners in towns and cities is the idea of filtered permeability. This is an urban planning concept that “filters out” through car traffic on selected streets to create a more attractive environment for walking and cycling, while maintaining accessibility for residents, deliveries or emergencies.
Back to nature
James Moran, lecturer in ecology and agriculture at Galway Mayo Institute of Technology, says: “On the face of it, the countryside will not look all that different in 2050, but if you look closely, you will notice changes.”
Farmers are being required to cut emissions dramatically and bogland will be rewetted to retain its carbon-storing qualities.
To maintain these bogs, farmers will have to be subsidised to “farm the carbon” by acting as environmental managers, according to Dr Florence Renou-Wilson of University College Dublin, who is an authority on peatlands and climate change.
“Our bogs can be a significant sink of CO2,” she says.
Moran says dairy and beef production will continue in the countryside, but this type of farming will have to be less reliant on fertilisers made from fossil fuels. Farmers are being encouraged to change the type of grassland for grazing cattle to a variety of species including clover.
This reduces the requirement for chemical fertilisers and helps to cut emissions, he says. As a result, according to the scientist, fields will again be 40 shades of green.
Gardeners are acutely aware of the changes happening in our environment. Our climate is warmer, wetter and subject to extreme weather. Flash floods are becoming common, as are summer droughts.
For some on our small island, spring arrives up to a month earlier than it used to, and winters can be so mild that lawns are being mown in December and January. This is only the beginning.
We’re expecting more of the same, with milder and wetter winters with summers being hotter and drier. All of this will lead to huge changes in how and where we garden.
By 2050, the Irish landscape and garden will look very different. We can expect our plots to take on more of a Mediterranean feel. While some flowering summer perennials like lupins and delphiniums will have a challenging time in dry summer soils, other plants that are familiar to us from trips abroad such as citrus fruits, grapevines and pomegranate, olive, peach and almond trees will become common.
But so will bugs and diseases. If there are no harsh frosts to kill them off, pests such as lily beetle, berberis sawfly and vine weevil will proliferate.
Saving rainwater in tanks underneath our gardens will become common; compost will be made from green waste; the ubiquitous neat lawn that is a barren desert for wildlife will be a thing of the past; and we will have stopped our reliance on artificial plant feeds and nitrates.
Our flower beds will be designed to cope with flash floods and we’ll plant smaller species of trees that will be able to withstand storms.
Instead of walls and fences, we will be encouraged to grow hedges: living walls. On the walls of our homes we’ll plant vertical gardens. Even roofs will be commonly used for planting as valuable spaces to grow food in towns and cities, and as a way of insulating building.
Self-driving technology will open the way for more green spaces. If we want a car we will summon it. When we reach our destination, rather than park, we will watch as it moves away. At the moment, a typical car is parked for 95pc of the time. Cities and towns should give over parking spaces to green plots. And multistorey car parks can become city farms.
- Diarmuid Gavin
It’s easy to imagine a future whizzing around on electric cars and bikes. But what about flying on electric or hybrid planes, sailing on zero-emission cruise ships or taking city breaks by high-speed rail? Or perhaps just imagine travelling less.
When it comes to travel, futurists love the sexy, sci-fi side of things: hyperloops, affordable trips to space, planes with massage seats and transparent ceilings. But unless Elon Musk suddenly unveils Tesla teleporters, the reality will be a lot more incremental and involve a lot of compromise.
As Cop26 plays out, it feels like we are in a moment — and a mindset — for genuine change. Hotel culture wars are playing out from Dublin to Dubrovnik. Lockdowns led us to reassess our lives, reconnect with nature and re-engage with our communities. Apocalyptic weather events have made sustainability mainstream.
Then you see flights for the price of a few pints. You read about the pent-up demand to travel, how essential aviation is to our island economy. That’s the dilemma. Greenhouse gas from commercial flights make up about 2pc of the world’s total carbon emissions and are expected to triple by 2050, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation.
One solution is to change the hardware. Innovators are looking at electric, solar and hydrogen-driven planes, but successes to date have been with small craft. Larger, commercially viable planes are a distant dream. Lower-emission or hybrid planes and ships are more likely. Ryanair says its newest Boeing 737, for example, will consume 16pc less fuel.
Another is answer to disincentivise unsustainable travel. After flight shaming, think flight rationing.
2050 isn’t that far away. But it’s time enough for change — 30 years ago, we hadn’t heard of smartphones, Airbnb or Instagram. Travel doesn’t have to go away. Tourism is an important contributor to economies and can encourage conservation. Costa Rica’s ecotourism drive has given new livelihoods to communities once dominated by logging, hunting and gold prospecting.
The challenge is to travel smarter, emit less and buy into a new kind of holidaying that sustains local communities rather than drive-by trips that treat the planet like a toilet and price people out of their homes.
But that’s not something a mindset alone will change. As long as cheap flights exist, we will fill them.
- Pól Ó Conghaile
By 2050, the days of cheap protein from intensively reared living animals will be remembered with incredulity. Meat and poultry will be the expensive luxuries that they once were, while Irish grass-fed beef will be a premium health food prized for its omega-rich fats.
We will have rediscovered the appetite for offal and other offcuts that our thrifty grandparents enjoyed, alongside a taste for lab-grown meat.
Insect farms will also provide cheap protein, though these will throw up their own challenges, as with any other intensive farming. Low-impact aquaculture with self-cleaning water systems will produce sustainably farmed fish alongside seafood such as whelks and abalone, which we will no longer simply export but will have learned to love.
The national herd will be smaller, both in volume and physique. Diminutive native breeds will be in demand because they are better suited to Ireland’s varied terrain and because they have less impact on the land.
We will employ an array of green science and regenerative farming solutions to minimise the herd’s impact on atmosphere and land, including dietary supplements made from sustainably farmed seaweed extracts to reduce methane gas output, and mob grazing of fully grass-fed beef cattle to reduce land degradation.
Food security will be key as global supply chains become vulnerable to interruption and shortages.
Irish soy milk and oat milk will replace imported almond milk. Wholegrain bread from Irish-grown heritage wheat developed to withstand drought and floods will displace sourdough made with imported flour.
Roof gardens, balcony farms, allotments and community gardens will play an important role in providing grassroots access to clean plant-based food. Community agriculture schemes and bakeries will become widespread.
- Aoife Carrigy