Very few people seem to realise how Ireland earns its real income or that an interconnected virtual world comes at a cost in the real world of energy and emissions
In a week when public debate was dominated by dire predictions about climate and the need to control emissions, it is worthwhile remembering that Ireland is making much better progress on emissions than many realise. Our carbon intensity of energy production has already fallen below 1970 levels, while our economy now has much higher outputs with these lower emissions.
When we do grow, the increased emissions are not coming from our industries — in the jargon this is called ‘decoupling’ — because thriving modern economies no longer produce equivalent growth in emissions. In Ireland, transport is the only sector that continues to increase emissions, while all others are declining. Many of our policies and much of our public commentary appear to overlook these realities.
More importantly, as we frame plans, we need to be mindful about where our national wealth comes from and how our policy responses may affect them.
Among these, the most important issue is that industry, manufacturing and services produce, by far, the largest part of our national wealth while creating the smallest part of our emissions. Agriculture produces most of our emissions while creating the least wealth.
Many environmental activists seem to have strong anti-capitalist leanings. This type of thinking appears to be entering official thinking with the report last week from “government sources” that a contingency plan has been drawn up. In this plan, data centres and large energy users would be the first to lose power in the event of shortages, with hospitals and private homes only cut off as a last resort.
Such thinking betrays a profound and deeply worrying lack of knowledge about the nature of the modern Irish economy.
All of our biggest industries involve continuous processes that last for days or even weeks non-stop. A loss of power, even for seconds, would result in the complete write-off of production batches worth tens of millions.
The mere mention of such a misguided approach is enough to be a major cause of concern for industries that underpin our whole economy — much less those contemplating future investment here.
Then there is the discussion about data centres. Public debate about this issue is also characterised by a seemingly wilful ignorance about how our society works.
How do people imagine that they can work from home, using the internet to exchange huge files, without data centres? How do they imagine that they can watch Netflix or save pictures on their phones without data centres? Do they stop to wonder how they can rage online about these issues without data centres?
Data centres lie at the very core of the modern service sector that is Ireland’s second largest source of income, employment and tax revenues.
Instead of treating these needs as burdens, we need to rapidly reframe our policies to ensure Ireland can meet the existing and future needs of these sectors as quickly and efficiently as possible.
None of this chimes with the national debate. Nobody wants to hear about the reality of agriculture’s declining role in our modern economy.
Very few appear to realise how Ireland earns its real income and even fewer are willing to accept that an interconnected virtual world comes at a cost in the real world of energy and emissions. Absolutely nobody wants to hear that the emissions from their car trip, their overheated house or their always-on lights are what urgently needs to be controlled — not the emissions from the big factory.
At the heart of this lies a wide gulf between our perception of ourselves and reality. Ireland is a hugely successful modern economy that specialises in very advanced manufacturing and services for international markets. Meanwhile, large swathes of the population still believe we are a farming country.
Worryingly, populist parties, especially Sinn Féin and the Greens, consistently promote policies that hark back to a world of indigenous land-based industries of a type that now sustain only severely underdeveloped nations.
Ireland, rightly, will always be a land full of farmers, producing world-class food, but we will no longer be defined by farming and food alone. We must admit who and what we really are now.
Additionally, Ireland is now undergoing significant realignment caused by emerging carbon taxes and climate targets. This change will bring up entirely new questions about where our priorities lie as we make our way forward as this successful modern economy.
We need to stop acting like helpless victims who are threatened and overwhelmed by all of these new challenges.
We need to be planning for growth, not cuts, shut downs and outages. This will need courage, vision, investment and an acceptance of new realities.
Debates about carbon taxes, climate targets and energy prices must not distract us from having these hard conversations about where our future lies and what we may need to leave behind.