Eamon Ryan, the Transport and Environment Minister, said recently that transport will be the most “challenging issue” when it comes to Ireland achieving its 2030 climate objectives.
He’s right. If transport targets are to be achieved, it will require people to break patterns and habits that have been formed over many years, as well as recent consumer trends that are exacerbating that challenge.
The target of a 50pc reduction in emissions in the sector by 2030 will require a societal transformation in how we travel, with collective action from people, businesses and communities across Ireland.
This transformation will mean reducing the number of journeys powered by harmful fossil fuels such as petrol and diesel and complementing this by switching to lower-emission vehicles and facilitating more public transport and physically active travel such as walking and cycling.
It will mean less traffic, better air quality, improved health and support for vibrant localities. This will also require giving better options to those who can’t drive.
With each new petrol and diesel engine car sold expected to have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years, those sold this year and beyond will be a barrier to us achieving our climate objectives well into the next decade. In contrast to electric vehicles (EVs), these cars will have a higher lifetime cost for drivers due to the significant cost of fuel and maintenance.
In particular, the growth in the sale of SUVs is an impediment to achieving our targets and under- mines the impact of the promising uptake of zero-emission EVs.
Across the globe, the sale of SUVs has increased over the past decade. In Ireland, they accounted for half of the new car registrations last year, up from 24pc in 2015. Sixteen of the top 25 cars sold last year were SUVs. With their greater weight and height, SUVs emit around 20pc more carbon dioxide than medium-sized cars and a lot more than EVs.
While some SUVs are also EVs, even these are not the most resource-efficient car type. Their greater size means they need bigger batteries and more electricity to power them while placing greater pressure on the critical minerals needed for such batteries.
The CO2 intensity of cars in Ireland was in decline in the decade preceding 2016. However, from 2016 to 2019 the growth in sales of SUVs meant this trend reversed.
The recent recommendation of the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) for the Government to expand low-cost finance initiatives to include the purchase of EVs would cut the cost of these more sustainable cars for consumers.
Along with growing our EV fleet and upgrading our charging infrastructure, this will be crucial to meeting the sector’s emissions objectives. Dousing the consumer desire for SUVs powered by petrol and diesel will be a major challenge, but it is far from the only one facing the Government as it seeks to achieve the sectoral targets for transport.
If the Government wants to achieve its transport emissions target, it will need to get people out of cars and on to public transport, incentivising and rewarding its use while disincentivising those with other options who remain committed to petrol and diesel cars.
Understandably, in a country with a dispersed population with varying needs, influences and impacts of decarbonisation on urban and rural living, this won’t be easy. This is why the CCAC asked the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development ( OECD) to conduct a case study on redesigning Ireland’s transport system toward one that works for people and the planet. The results of this study will be published next month.
There are already initiatives that can start to build momentum.
The roll-out of the BusConnects scheme in Galway, Cork, Limerick and Waterford over the coming years will begin to provide the sort of reliable public transport system outside of Dublin that is needed to help us reach our goals.
The reduction in fares for public transport should be retained and extended, with an assessment of this measure’s effectiveness in terms of supporting the vulnerable and reducing emissions to determine whether it should be maintained into the future.
Ultimately, the most significant change we can make is to reduce the number of journeys we make in large internal combustion engine cars.
Andrew Murphy is a member of the Climate Change Advisory Council