Calling the tune on climate change

Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly on how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change is failing in its duty to represent all viable technologies, including nuclear energy, as it is only allowing argument supporting renewable technologies.

As a result, the process is not only flawed but it is doomed to fail as there is no credible path to success in tackling climate change – let alone lead in it – that deliberately excludes proven clean technologies.

The Irish government declared Climate Change to be one of the most important long-term challenges facing us and effective action is needed now that we know that climate damage is happening quicker than we thought.

Ireland is by far the worst EU performer at meeting our climate targets, as can be seen from this official EU graph showing we are projected to exceed our 2020 emissions targets by 12%.

Ireland is “Paddy last” of the EU 28 in hitting emissions targets

After over a decade of our best efforts, Irish emissions are again rising and are projected to rise further even if we fully implement all our current policies. The graph below (using EPA data) shows the non-ETS emissions (in blue) starting to exceed our 2020 emissions target. [Note: ETS emissions (in red), from large users such as power stations and cement works, are not part of our EU targets as they are regulated separately under the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).]

EPA graph showing our target emissions (Blue) exceeding our 2020 target line (Green)

During this period, we have had Ministers for the Environment from a variety of political parties (Fianna Fáil, Greens, Fine Gael, Labour and the Independent Alliance) tackle the issue earnestly – and with endeavour – but with limited success.

That is not to belittle the many successful initiatives that most people are aware of. Ireland now has the highest fraction of electricity from wind turbines per person of any European nation. We changed our motor tax scheme and now drive much more efficient vehicles. Our waste collection is streamed and there is a good degree of recycling carried out by most people in the State.

Many other, less well-known, initiatives are also underway. There is a state-of-the-art marine power testing facility on our west coast. Our electricity grid operator, EirGrid, has made huge changes to how our system operates to allow intermittent wind power reach global record-breaking levels. Building regulations are moving slowly towards achieving near-zero emissions standards. And there are a number of energy efficiency schemes, some grant-aided, operating effectively throughout the country.

Yet, our emissions still rise as our growth in energy use outpaces the efficiency gains being made.

Although Ireland will certainly miss our 2020 EU climate-related targets, and we are likely to miss those for 2030, we have set ourselves very ambitious targets for 2050. These aim at reducing emissions by at least 80% – and preferably by 95% – below 1990 levels by 2050. This will require fundamental societal change at every level in Irish society if the targets are to stand any chance of being met.

To engage with society, Government tasked the Citizens’ Assembly with coming up with recommendations on how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change. The Assembly, in turn, established an expert advisory group to help them prepare information and advice to help them in this task. The Terms of Reference for this advisory group include:

  • In the case of issues where expert views are contested (i.e. where experts can make credible arguments that directly conflict with one another,) the Expert Advisory Group will ensure that both sides of the argument will be represented.

Nuclear power is clearly one issue where expert views are contested and these different views are outlined in the Energy Green Paper from 2014, the last Government paper to address nuclear power’s potential for Ireland. [The subsequent Energy White Paper essentially ignored the issue, as in Clause 166: “Nuclear power generation in Ireland is currently prohibited by legislation“].

The Green Paper argued against nuclear power on the basis of cost and size – arguments that are strongly contested. For example, EirGrid published a study that showed that there was no means of supplying electricity in Ireland cheaper than using even a large nuclear plant. Regarding size, the Green Paper itself accepted that smaller reactors could be accommodated on the Irish grid (p 49).

The Green Paper also wanted it understood that nuclear is not a “zero carbon” technology. While there is no such thing as a ‘zero-carbon’ technology, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have assessed nuclear power as being a low-carbon energy source, as in this extract from Chapter 6 of the IPCC Assessment Report 5 (AR5):

As it is clear that there are credible arguments in favour of nuclear power, there is an onus on the advisory group to ensure that both sides of the argument are represented.

That this has not happened appears to be a significant breach of the Terms of Reference for the Advisory Group, and is a matter that should be rectified without delay. Fortunately, this is a relatively straight forward matter to rectify.

What is more significant is that even the Citizens’ Assembly advisory group do not appear to understand the extent of the challenge that is facing us in effectively tackling climate change. Worse, they appear to believe that we could lead in this area merely by reinforcing current energy policy.

Certainly, we need to engage with the Citizens to ensure that society takes all the small but important steps needed to tackle climate change, not only through the Citizens’ Assembly but through the National Dialogue to be chaired by Pat Gilroy.

But we also need to greatly expand our climate change efforts by considering all technologies that can help us in this regard. Denying the Citizens’ Assembly the opportunity to make an informed choice about the low-carbon options identified by the IPCC is wrong and is an early indication of our likely failure begin, let alone to lead in, tackling the causes of climate change.

We know who is paying the piper – but we can hardly be expected to call for a tune that we know little or nothing about!

Same thing; different results?

Hurricane Ophelia and Storm Brian are stark reminders of the damage, death and destruction that weather-related events can bring. Whether such events are a direct result of Climate Change or not, we are also aware that such extreme weather events are becoming more common and more powerful.

We also now better understand that air quality has a significant impact on our health, which is why we plan to dramatically reduce the number of diesel and petrol engines used in transport – the sale of such engines may be banned here from 2040.

In Ireland in 2015, fossil fuel power stations released 11 million tons of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. They also released particulate matter (PM) and 9,500 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), both of which contribute to unhealthy air.

These are matters of serious public concern. As we cannot realistically reduce our emissions significantly without the support of the public, Government asked our Citizens’ Assembly to consider how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change. Their conclusions will form the basis of reports and recommendations to be submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas for further debate by our elected representatives.

The Assembly members were to hear from a range of national and international academics, practitioners and experts on climate change and learn how nations are affected by it and respond to it. So far, so good!

The members heard about excellent initiatives by individuals and groups who made changes at their local level, at work or in their communities. And there were calls for a tariff for excess solar energy fed back into the electricity grid. (Caution: this measure would require all customers to subsidise those wealthy enough to install solar panels).

But they also heard that our energy policy will not meet our targets for 2020, 2030 and 2050 and that new policy initiatives are required. Yet precious few potential new initiatives got an airing over the 2 days of deliberations.

The members didn’t hear that Nuclear Energy is the single most effective technology ever used to rapidly decarbonise a nation’s energy – as achieved by France in the 1980’s (see the graph below). New nuclear plants are expected to be even safer and cheaper than existing plants and will be small enough for Ireland within a decade. Nuclear energy is not currently legal in Ireland.

Growth in French Nuclear from 1980

Nor were members told about Carbon Capture, a technology that most experts believe to be essential in keeping global warming below 2 degrees, the conservative target of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Carbon Capture is also not currently legal in Ireland.

They did not hear about South Korea’s Citizens Jury who have recently voted to recommence construction of two nuclear reactors in the south of the country. These two reactors will avoid the need to build gas-fired plants which would burn up to 10 million tons of gas, resulting in up to 30 million tons of emissions, each year.

The members will probably not be aware that Singapore will stop adding cars to their roads from February 2018 while they intend investing €18 billion in public transport over the coming 5 years.

These are all examples of initiatives that could help Ireland to at least meet its climate change commitments, even if we remain far from the goal of leadership in this regard.

But, because there was no discussion of anything other than the renewables-only solutions that are already enshrined in our failing Energy Policy, it will be no surprise if no new policies will be proposed for consideration by the Oireachtas – and the whole process will have achieved little of any consequence.

This is an important exercise in deliberative democracy, placing the citizen at the heart of important legal and policy issues facing Irish society today. With the benefit of expert, impartial and factual advice, the 100 citizen members could be capable of proposing considered recommendations on our energy future, as they did for the questions of the Eighth Amendment and our Ageing Population.

But to attempt to consider how Ireland can lead in tackling climate change without considering the full picture is a fools errand. Surely, the Assembly members, and the people of Ireland, deserve better – particularly as the Government has already said “that Climate Change is one of the most important long-term challenges facing Ireland“.

There may also be more support for allegedly unpopular proposals such as nuclear energy, as a number of small polls have found a majority of Irish people to be in favour of at least considering nuclear here. And the 800,000-strong ICTU also agree that nuclear should be part of the debate.

Majority in favour of a Nuclear debate – even after Fukushima.

If the Government is to meet its commitment to the transformation required to achieve a low carbon and climate resilient future, it will need to examine much more than the simple solutions currently being considered.

In other words: if we are to get different results, we really need to stop doing the same things!