Monday 23 September 2019

Colm McCarthy: 'Ireland won't win climate change war by being insular'

We must form a united front with Europe and avoid well-intended but ill-thought-out policies, writes Colm McCarthy

Red alert: Stephen Cunningham, from Rathgar, a member of Extinction Rebellion Ireland, taking part in a Blood on our Children demonstration outside Leinster House earlier this month, which the campaign group says symbolises the inaction of the Government on climate change
Red alert: Stephen Cunningham, from Rathgar, a member of Extinction Rebellion Ireland, taking part in a Blood on our Children demonstration outside Leinster House earlier this month, which the campaign group says symbolises the inaction of the Government on climate change
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

There are just two priorities for any small European country anxious to help in tackling climate change. The first is to identify and implement cost-effective schemes to reduce emissions at home. The second is to engage at European level, supporting the Brussels institutions in their efforts to forge better universal policies.

The world's 200 countries do not each possess an individual atmosphere. If they did, there would be no sense to the Extinction Rebellion placards insisting, quite correctly, that There is No Planet B. For the smaller ones, domestic success or failure will have negligible impact on the Earth's climate and hence on their own.

But countries which are seen to be making a decent effort in their own backyard can expect a better hearing in international fora. Even small EU members possess what the military people call a 'force multiplier', since the European Union has an active policy, much criticised but also more serious than policy in other major emitters, notably Donald Trump's United States. Last Monday, the Government gathered the national media to witness the unveiling of its climate action plan in Grangegorman. The document includes aspirations to reduce emissions in Ireland but nothing significant about the position Ireland might take at European level, where important initiatives are brewing.

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The document is replete with 'actions', no fewer than 183 times, many of them along the lines of 'we will consider…' or 'we will review…', along with targets for decarbonisation, of which the headline-grabber was 'we will cut emissions to net zero by 2050'.

If you think a target is the same as a policy, you could have a future in the media end of the politics business. In football, 'we will win the league' is a target. 'We have bought a new centre-half at the limit of our budget' is a policy.

All political communication should be sifted carefully to distinguish targets from policies and the plan is full of policy-free target-mongering.

There is very little on costs or on technical constraints, but the Government is hopefully inching its way, with pre-election reticence, toward some serious policy choices. Some of them could be mistakes.

Emissions from Ireland's electricity generation sector have been reducing as renewable power comes on stream, at considerable direct and indirect cost. The plan has hoisted the target for the share of zero-emission power from 55pc to 70pc without a cost estimate or a meaningful discussion of the technical issues which arise.

There are four available technologies in the here and now which offer zero-emission power, or something very close to it. These are nuclear, hydro, wind and solar.

There is no intention to go nuclear in Ireland, and the technology has encountered some horrors in the way of cost over-runs internationally in recent years. All significant hydro resources in Ireland have been exploited - there are no great rivers lurking undiscovered.

That leaves wind and solar, both interruptible sources of power since they are weather-dependent. It may be technically feasible to run a national electricity system with as much as 70pc interruptible power, but nobody has yet done so to my knowledge.

When interruptible power is not available, there must be back-up, which as a practical matter means gas stations. These incur extra costs with on-off operation and some of the carbon efficiency is also lost.

It would be nice to see a detailed economic and technical study which demonstrates that a world-beating reliance on wind and solar is cost-effective.

The State-owned company Eirgrid are the obvious people to conduct such a study and it is surprising that the target has been increased in its absence. Wind generation in Ireland has developed only with substantial subsidy and the solar industry is naturally keen to join the queue. But how much is enough?

Both the Moneypoint coal station and the Midlands peat stations, the champion carbon emitters on the Irish system, will close in due course. These are always-on stations and will have to be replaced with further gas stations as reliance on renewables continues to rise. There will be extra bills for grid connections. Is this the cheapest way to cut emissions?

The Government expects Ireland to be hosting no less than 25pc of all the data centres in Europe by the mid-2020s. Without them there would be no overall growth, or very little, in electricity demand.

Why do so many data centres want to locate in Ireland? There has been a similar trend in Denmark, where Green and environmental groups suspect that the data centres are getting something of a free ride, not having to remunerate the full costs of the grid, and the system back-up, which they impose on all other electricity users.

Again, Eirgrid would be well placed to provide a full techno-economic assessment and the Irish Greens could perhaps make inquiries of their Danish colleagues.

A headline take-away from the plan was the target (another one) to have almost a million electric cars on the road by 2030. This is certainly feasible - you can buy one at your nearest car dealer tomorrow. There are two very large snags - the subsidies to electric cars can be afforded by the Exchequer only so long as they remain unpopular, ditto the loss of fuel tax revenue, and the power distribution system will need to be strengthened to charge all those batteries.

Logic says that the widespread adoption of battery-powered road vehicles means some completely new form of taxation to pay for the road system, for example congestion charging, which could yield a bonus in spreading out peak-time traffic in urban areas. The Government's plan is eloquent on the target but largely silent on the policy implications.

Last Thursday and Friday, the Dutch government hosted a conference with serious potential for European climate action in the Hague.

The Netherlands has a substantial aviation industry, home to KLM and to Schiphol. Schipol is one of Europe's great hubs and about twice the size of Dublin airport. But the Dutch have nonetheless backed a European Commission initiative to raise the question of taxes on the aviation sector.

There is no excise on jet kerosene, which has per-litre emissions similar to petrol or diesel but costs half as much to the airlines. Nor is there VAT on airline tickets.

Swedish transport minister Magdalena Andersson said: "I can see bilateral or multilateral agreements as a way of going forward," while the Netherlands' state secretary for finance, Menno Snel, called for like-minded member states to build on the current momentum for a level playing field on taxing transport fuels.

Pricing aviation and fuel taxation should be "on the first page of any climate action list for the new president of the European Commission", he argued.

The speakers included European Commissioner Pierre Moscovici, and the conference followed an overdue, but inevitable, Commission initiative to address emissions from the aviation sector through the price mechanism.

Invitations were extended freely and only a prior engagement kept this writer in Dublin.

The Hague is just 30 minutes by train from Schiphol, to which Dublin airport offers 14 flight departures per day. This was an opportunity for the Irish Government to put some flesh on the rhetoric from Grangegorman. No Irish minister attended.

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