A panel of experts discuss the implications for Ireland of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), aimed at accelerating action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
How will COP26 catalyse the energy future?
As well as giving the world an opportunity to recommit to the objectives set out in the Paris Agreement, COP26 will also give international attention to the issue. My concern would be that we have frequently seen governments making commitments, but I would like to see more by the way of action. Governments actually implementing policies is what will make the difference, so it is what comes after Glasgow that is critical.
COP26 will offer momentum. It is not quite like Paris, as there is no major new treaty or agreement in the offing, but it marks the return of the US, if not to climate leadership, at least to positive engagement and ambitious action. I would hope that from Glasgow comes a realisation by civil society and industry, particularly in the context of energy, that this is real. Government intent will enable industry to respond and so for me, COP26 is about that sense of cohesion and momentum.
We need to go beyond momentum and accelerate. The IPCC report basically said that global temperatures will cross the 1.5ºC threshold in the early 2030s. What that says is that the window of opportunity to address more dangerous climate change is closing. In energy, electricity is the most important sector but there is a need for action. We are hoping COP26 will bring about that total focus on action.
What role can Ireland play in the global energy transition?
Ireland can commit to doing its fair share. Our new climate law target is for net zero carbon by 2050, which is not our fair share under an equitable distribution of effort to reach 1.5oC but is at least finally in line with EU targets. We have been better in energy but there is a need for a continued commitment by government. Firstly, in relation to renewables, we have been a world leader on the integration of renewables on to our grid, but we need to press on with facilitating offshore wind and solar. Secondly, we have begun to show symbolic leadership on the future of fossil fuels through divesting our sovereign wealth fund from fossil fuels and ending the issuing of new licenses for oil and gas exploration, but we are now in a crunch period of addressing what we do about our own supplies of fossil fuels over the coming years. I believe if the Government want to show leadership, as they say they do, then they should outline that they don’t see it as appropriate to develop gas infrastructure of any kind, because it risks locking ourselves in. We need to be moving to the electrification of everything and the decarbonisation of electricity.
“We know we can, through various technologies, produce lots of renewable electricity but the problem is balancing the system in a way that is carbon neutral.”
Ireland has a leadership role and there is no time like the present to get things moving. There is no doubt that in Ireland’s system one of our biggest gaps is insufficient zero carbon or low carbon flexible generation. It is the next big thing that needs to happen because what we cannot do is allow a disorderly transition to net zero, because that would leave people behind.
Primarily, Ireland can support the EU Commission proposals because it is vital for Europe that these are implemented, including the inclusion of heat and transport into the Emissions Trading System (ETS). Secondly, Ireland needs to redirect about two per cent of national income from current investment and consumption to investment in tackling climate change. Barriers will have to be removed so we can roll out major investment in infrastructure to decarbonise electricity, but I think where costs are going to be significant is in the areas of heat and transport. That is going to place a significant burden on government and is going to require a significant increase in taxation in order to fund the necessary transformation. I believe that government must be honest with people in saying yes, there are major benefits, but there are also going to be costs.
To what extent are the technologies and energy solutions for dealing with emissions across power, transport, deforestation, and methane readily available and cost-effective?
Within electricity, there is so much to go for right now and the big gamechanger is the cost of offshore wind. We can take inspiration from the success of onshore wind because if you create the right structures and competitive situations, then the private sector should do what it is good at, which is to innovate and bring down costs. It is clear what we need to do with electricity, we need to get as much offshore wind out there as possible.
“I would hope that from Glasgow comes a realisation by civil society and industry, particularly in the context of energy, that this is real.”
Offshore wind is now reaching the production stage but in other areas we don’t know what the answer is going to be. We know we can, through various technologies, produce lots of renewable electricity but the problem is balancing the system in a way that is carbon neutral. There is not one solution to do this and in deploying solutions, there is a need to reduce costs to make them feasible.
To a large extent the technologies exist but there is great capacity for innovation among the business community and society at large, particularly when government makes the market and there are targets and hard objectives put in place. The challenge is that there is no silver bullet. There are hundreds of solutions across society and the challenge is not identifying them or even developing them but deploying them at scale. That is why it is really important that there are opportunities for people to be involved, through the likes of microgeneration, and that we enable these solutions, even if they are not the most cost-effective, so that people can feel involved.
How can the Irish Government and energy industry demonstrate leadership in transforming ambitions into action?
On the part of the Government, it will require a sustained focus. Following the science in the same way we have with Covid-19 and then communicating that with a consistency and clarity, not just for 18 months but for the next decade and beyond. Every decision must prioritise climate action when there are trade-offs to be made. We then need to put in place whatever supports are required to mean that the consequences of those decisions are not too severe.
Additionally, it is not all about technology and innovation. We are going to have to manage, or at least reduce, the energy demand. Some models show energy demand doubling in the next 10 years, with a lot of that additional demand going towards data centres. I would worry that what needs to be done around the grid and renewables to solve the climate crisis will get conflated in the public eye, with the growth in data centre electricity demand. I don’t believe that the Government is taking seriously the need for data centre policy that aligns with our Paris goals and questions whether or not it is worth building a system where a quarter of our electricity might go to data centres in 10 years’ time.
Last year, I was a little concerned about a frenzy of target setting by companies and corporates, not just in the energy sector. There appeared to be an emphasis on the scale of targets and not necessarily the effectiveness of action. In SSE, we have pinned our flag to the science-based target initiative, and it is important that the carbon targets we have set for our own operations have integrity. We have put a lot of store into having those firm targets, and they are important but not nearly as important as the actions we have to take quickly.
I agree that the effectiveness of action is more important than targets and I believe government must take the lead if we are to achieve buy-in from people. Some innovations already exist, for example, the Tallaght District Heating Scheme, which uses the excess heat from the Amazon data centre, or the Kilkenny County Council retrofit programme for local authority homes, which has also served as a catalyst for nearby private homes to make investment. These are initiatives which show the benefits of the State taking control, delivering at scale, getting buy-in, and assuring quality control. The State has a role if we, the people of Ireland, are going to spend a lot of money addressing climate change.
“We can take inspiration from the success of onshore wind — if you create the right structures and competitive situations, then the private sector should do what it is good at, which is to innovate and bring down costs.”
A further example is the Land Development Agency (LDA), which is going to play a big role in building large numbers of houses in Ireland. If the LDA pushed for timber frame dwellings, using much less cement, they have the scale to require factories to be built to produce the houses in modular form. This would save money, deliver houses more rapidly and save carbon. It is these types of initiatives where the State can play a role and further, advertise it.
Chief Sustainability Officer, SSE
Rachel joined SSE in 2007 and, as Chief Sustainability Officer, is responsible for its sustainability strategy, climate change policy, community funds and corporate heritage. She is also a non-Executive Director of Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks Board. External to SSE, Rachel was a member of the Scottish Government’s Just Transition Commission and is a member of the Fair Tax Mark Board. Prior to working for SSE, she was Senior Special Adviser to Scotland’s First Minister from 2001 to 2007.
Member, Climate Change Advisory Council
John is one of Ireland’s leading economists and a Research Affiliate with the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) and an Adjunct Professor in TCD and UCD. He was a member of the Northern Ireland Authority for Energy Regulation from 2003 to 2006 and he is a member of the Government’s Climate Change Advisory Council.
Director, Friends of the Earth
Oisín has been Director of Friends of the Earth since 2005. He co-founded the Stop Climate Chaos Coalition in 2007 and the Environmental Pillar in 2009 and led the 14-year campaign for a climate law which culminated in the passing of the Climate Action Act 2021. He is the current chair of Coalition 2030, the Irish civil society coalition for the UN Sustainable Development Goals.