Opinion Comment

Saturday 23 February 2019

Ivan Yates: 'Wind energy can provide a silver-bullet solution to €600m EU climate fines'

  

Sunk: Vehicles caught in a flooded car park in Salthill, Galway City, during Storm Erik. Photo: Andrew Downes
Sunk: Vehicles caught in a flooded car park in Salthill, Galway City, during Storm Erik. Photo: Andrew Downes
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

It's the most popular conversation item in the country. Weather preoccupies our talk time. The highest viewer ratings on 2018 TV news were directly associated with Ireland's first official Atlantic hurricane Storm Emma and dramatic snowfalls during the 'Beast from the East' storm.

Last Sunday at the Dublin Racing Festival, in the Leopardstown parade ring Michael O'Leary criticised track management for not watering the chase track. Heretofore an unheard of notion in February. For the first time in living memory, winter ground conditions were officially described as 'good to firm' - resulting in a slate of non-runners.

Climate change is blamed for summer droughts, winter floods and all extreme erratic weather conditions. But patterns seem utterly unpredictable; different conditions each year.

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Temperatures have risen by 1C over the past century and 0.5C within the last 30 years - although curiously Ireland's highest recorded temperature occurred in Kilkenny in 1887.

Prof John Sweeney, expert climatologist from Maynooth University, predicts further global warming of 0.5C within two decades. The UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says we have only a dozen years to prevent temperatures rising by 1.5C or even 2C by 2050. This led the EU and Ireland signing up to the Paris climate accord in 2016, endorsed most recently at COP24 in Poland.

Ireland is the second-highest EU emitter of greenhouse gases at 13.7 tonnes per capita, compared to an EU average of seven tonnes per annum. By the original target date of 2020, we'll be 15-20pc over our promised limit. With restored economic growth, we're back to a pattern of rising emissions of 2.5pc a year.

However, a responsibility reality check is needed. This has to be put into a global context of collective culpability among 200 national governments for global warming. Ireland accounts for 0.18pc of global emissions, compared to China at 25pc, USA at 16pc and the entire EU at 10pc.

Turning to fossil fuels output, Ireland's energy production is a tiny, paltry equivalent of two million tonnes in comparison to producers in billion tonnes of oil equivalent, China (2.5), USA (1.8), Saudi Arabia (1.3), Russia (1.3) and India (0.5). We're minnows in a 'polluter pays' league.

Selfishly, we also have less frontline risk. Our moderate, equable climate means variation of average winter and summer temperatures is one of the lowest in the world. Primary dangers of flooding from melting Arctic snow, even rising seas by 10cm, apply to Polynesian and Caribbean islands - not Ireland.

We've less domestic downside dangers and will benefit less from diminished risks of droughts and forest fires.

Each week, scientist Dr Cara Augustenborg educates me about everything environmental on our Newstalk radio slot 'Down To Earth'. Green politicians plus a network of 30-plus NGOs in the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition devote their entire energy into making mainstream politicians adopt eco-friendly philosophies and policies.

These include specific measures like carbon taxes, banning fossil fuel exploration, phasing out diesel vehicles, waste to heat schemes and building regulations based on retrofit insulation.

Mainstream pragmatic politicians focus on votes over causes. Short-term electoral pain for future generations' gain isn't a viable concept. Politicos are long on great intentions about 'sustainability', short on decisions.

Successive environmental ministers waffle endlessly about their green credentials, applying St Augustine's principle of making me pure, just not yet. So we get lots of transition statements, national mitigation plans and sectoral adaptation plans that amount to hot air.

The best example of this was the absence of carbon tax in the last Budget, despite it being promised. The current rate of carbon tax is €20 per tonne. It was anticipated to rise by 50pc or €10. But the incremental plan is to have carbon taxation of €100 per tonne by 2030.

Realities for ordinary punters are that each €10 per tonne adds €1.05c onto a 40kg bag of coal, 25c on to a bale of turf briquettes and 2.7c onto a litre of petrol/diesel.

So, adopting the full implementation model of a carbon tax to deter carbon usage means a cumulative top-up price of more than €10 on a bag of coal and 27c on fuel.

In terms of crude politics, this amounts to potential fuel poverty for vulnerable elderly people's heating needs and penalising commuters travelling long distances throughout rural Ireland, without public transport options. Protesting yellow vests of Paris could readily become the green jerseys of domestic disaffection.

The agriculture community, especially 70,000 beef farmers, (already under the cosh with Brexit) is told it's to blame for excessive methane levels, despite the most natural extensive grass-based systems of food production and increased afforestation acreage. The farmer backlash to Leo's "eating less meat" was both fearsome and derisory.

Yet, among these stinging political nettles, there's a populist sweet spot.

We want to avoid EU fines of up to €600m a year. We must reduce our carbon emissions by 7pc annually. Electricity generation is the single most important strategic sector relating to greenhouse gases, especially if we're all driving electric cars from 2030.

Ireland is set to almost achieve the target of 40pc renewable-sourced electricity production by 2020. The success story of the last two decades has been wind energy, which is within touching distance of 4,000MW, employing 4,000 people, mostly in rural areas. Wind accounts for ­seven-eighths of our renewable electricity. It's a natural Irish resource, adjacent to the Atlantic.

On Minister Richard Bruton's desk is a proposal that by 2030, 70pc of Ireland's electricity generation would come from renewable energy sources.

We've barely scratched the surface of potential offshore turbines, because there's no planning regime nor connection agreements to allow marine-based windfarms to proceed. It's been described as another unique IFSC international opportunity for IRL Inc.

There's been a transformation in improved community relations and a new code of practice to facilitate benefit payments locally to deliver up to €250m to neighbours of turbines. Through new technologies, Ireland can attain 7,000MW of wind energy by 2030, with added economic benefits of pushing down wholesale electricity prices.

Our low-carbon transition is literally blowing in the wind.

Irish Independent

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