Decarbonisation - unleashing the potential

The 21st Century will be about how Energy is managed on Earth.  Officially, the Republic of Ireland is committed to zero carbon emissions in the Energy Sector by 2100 (I suspect that not many reading this blog will be alive then). A reduction of 80% for the Sector is mooted for 2050. Progress, to date, has been solid but too slow.  However, in the space of a decade, big changes have taken place in the technology of how energy is produced.  From home heating to electric cars, the technology is changing and so is the market.

The Republic of Ireland has a long distance to go in reducing Greenhouse Gas emissions (of which the Energy Sector contributes just under 20%).  It is at the bottom of the class in terms of emissions per capita of population in 2016.  

One can be positive about what is being achieved. Somewhat under the radar, the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) is charting its own way forward. This is very welcome. It plots a course towards decarbonisation in the production of electricity. It plans that, in two years time, approximately 40% of electricity will be generated from renewable sources (primarily hydro and wind) compared to 27% in 2015. (just under 20% of total Greenhouse emissions are from electricity generating power stations).

There is a concern, even in the very short-run, about the future of the coal-burning Moneypoint electricity generation plant in Clare as well as the peat-burning stations in the Midlands.  A ‘just transition’ to sustainable electricity generation based on strategies involving training, diversification and growth in new forms of enterprise must come to the fore.  A shift away from fossil fuel (in particular oil and gas both of which is heavily imported via Great Britain) in the provision of energy in the various sectors will require major adjustments in infrastructure and application of new technologies. This will require time, investment, coordination and public buy-in.

The transition to a zero carbon economy requires coordination at the European and Irish levels involving many actors of which the ESB is an important one. The Agriculture, Transport and Home Heating sectors make the bulk of contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, the electricity-generating sector has an important role to play and example to give. It can help accelerate a transition to renewables replacing, in particular, coal and peat and redirecting work into new activities centered on renewable energy and, in some cases, ‘deep retrofitting’ of buildings starting with those in public ownership.

Electric vehicles provide an important way forward in the transport sector. With evolving technology barriers such as cost, fuel range and availability of recharging points can be dramatically improved. However, Government plans seem to be excessively focussed on motorways and private car transport. The balance need needs to be reset with a greater focus on public transport including low- to zero-carbon modes of public transport.

This is a long-term game that needs a degree of urgency now as the global impacts of unbalanced human activity become all too evident.

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Tom Healy

Tom Healy was the Director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI). Tom has previously worked in the Economic and Social Research Institute, the Northern Ireland Economic Research Centre, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the National Economic and Social Forum and the Department of Education and Skills.