The road to 2050: planning for a low-carbon future
The theme of Irish energy policy over the next twenty years will be one of transition as the country follows through on its international commitments and targets the delivery of a low carbon, climate resilient, and environmentally sustainable economy. In practice, this will mean greater integration with the rest of Europe through the Energy Union and an 80%-90% reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to 1990 levels by 2050. How we meet these ambitious objectives in the context of a growing economy and an increasing population while also addressing concerns around energy security and affordability will be one of the greatest challenges of our time.
Until now progress has been mixed. Fossil fuel energy represented 90% of total energy used in 2014 and Ireland will struggle to meet its binding 2020 EU GHG emissions reduction targets through domestic action. Provisional energy and emissions data for 2015 show a 5% increase in CO2 emissions and a re-coupling of energy and economic growth. While great gains have been made in renewable electricity, the deployment of renewable technologies in transport and heating has been limited. Meanwhile, it has been estimated that around 75,000 homes and businesses may need to be upgraded every year to reach our national energy efficiency target for 2020.
The path to a low carbon energy system is not straightforward. Projections and cost-optimal scenario planning by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) and the Energy Policy and Modelling Group (EPMG) based in University College Cork offer no single solution. Instead a combination of efforts and technologies will be required including a significant increase in the share of renewables in the heat, transport and power sectors, greater investment in energy efficiency, smarter land-use management, carbon capture and storage (CCS), a modal shift in transport and a more engaged and empowered energy citizen.
Whatever course is taken, Ireland’s energy research system will play a crucial role in not only the development, improvement and adaptation of new technologies but also in helping policymakers better understand the societal and behavioural barriers to the energy transition. This is key to the development of effective evidence-based policy and is rightly emphasised as a priority research area in the 2016 Report of the Energy Research Strategy Group.
Under this heading, a key barrier that needs to be addressed is the issue of poor spatial planning. In Ireland, the absence of an effective national spatial strategy has led to missed opportunities for cost-effective mitigation across the agriculture, built environment, transport and heating sectors and has hindered the roll-out of key infrastructure necessary for decarbonisation.
Right now, the planning and roll-out of communities, commercial projects, public services and infrastructure are executed largely on an ad hoc basis without considering in advance current and future energy requirements, the carbon footprint and available mitigation options. For instance, high-efficiency district heating networks could be ideal for some housing, commercial and industrial developments – especially if there is an existing heat source nearby. Alternatively, project locations could be selected by an opportunity to take advantage of waste heat availability. Indeed, many infrastructure/development decisions are effective over several decades and hence decisions now could affect Ireland’s emissions profile in 2050.
Where people live work and socialise also has an impact on our emissions profile Through climate-smart spatial planning we could encourage more sustainable settlement patterns through densification, thereby reducing commute distances and travel time while making public transport and other services easier to finance. Greater densification would also help in the creation of smart communities/cities while freeing up additional land for sustainable farming, afforestation, renewables, essential decarbonisation infrastructure and recreation.
The move towards a low carbon system will also require a major rethink on how we use land resources. Depending on how it is used, soil can be either a source or a sink for carbon. Under the proposed new EU Climate and Energy Framework for 2020-2030, Ireland has an opportunity to partially offset agricultural emissions through sustainable farming, afforestation and better land management. This does not necessarily require radically new policy initiatives, rather a tailoring of existing land-use policy instruments towards soils and regions where they can be applied most effectively. This could also be addressed through better spatial planning.
A way forward?
A draft national spatial planning framework – ‘Ireland 2040’ – is currently out for public consultation. Therein the document envisages an Ireland in 2040 based on a strong circular economy and significant progress towards a low carbon economy. The draft includes a specific chapter entitled ‘Realising our Sustainable Future’ and there is regular mention of the decarbonisation agenda throughout the document. While this is encouraging, there were similar ambitions in its unsuccessful predecessor – the National Spatial Strategy 2001-2020. Ireland 2040 has the potential to set climate-smart ground rules for all future planning and infrastructure investment and create the conditions for a cost-effective transformation of our energy system. Delivery – especially at regional and local authority levels – will be key.
By Conor Minogue, Senior Executive, Energy Policy, Ibec