Belfast Telegraph

View from Dublin: food for thought on climate change challenge

By Fearghal O'Connor

On Sunday May 12, the shores of the Shannon estuary were teeming with plant lovers as Bord Bia's Rare and Special Plant Fair came to beautiful old Glin Castle.

Every year crowds at the annual show are getting bigger. At Glin there were so many people that the traffic management system almost came to a standstill as an eclectic crowd of all ages flocked to the event.

Perhaps the large attendance at such an event is symptomatic of a growing interest globally - and certainly in Ireland - of living a life that is somehow more natural and closer to nature.

Climate change, carbon footprints and the destruction of the environment are weighing heavily on many people's minds. Pursuits such as gardening may be an antidote of sorts for some and part of a reassessment of personal choices in the face of increasingly ominous warnings of global calamity from climate scientists and others - not least David Attenborough's recent documentary about the impact of climate change.

A report two weeks ago from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) underlined the challenge Ireland faces to meet an EU target to generate 16% of energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. Indeed, many climate scientists believe those targets greatly undershoot what is actually required.

Reports merely underline in black and white the challenges that are there to see all around us should we choose to do so. Anyone attending the plant show at Glin, for example, could gaze across the Shannon estuary and see with their own eyes some of the massive choices that Ireland, as a country, faces.

On the far side of the river, Moneypoint coal-fired power station - the biggest single electricity generator on the island - dominates the horizon with its huge stacks that periodically pump out greenhouse gases.

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New figures from Eurostat showed that emissions from Irish power generation and industrial companies in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme fell 8.2% in 2018. The EPA said the decrease was largely due to Moneypoint being offline for the last three months of the year for repairs, which, although positive, also underlines just how big a conundrum the huge station and its eventual replacement actually represents.

Separate stats showed that wind provided a record 37% of Ireland's electricity in the first quarter of 2019. But, for now, the country is still ultimately dependent on the huge coal station to provide security of supply.

And Moneypoint is not the only hard choice for Ireland's power-generation industry.

The Shannon flows through the midlands, where peat bogs - major carbon sinks - are still sacrificed for electricity generation. In nearby Tarbert there are also plans to build a major liquid gas terminal. Proponents say it will help lessen our dependence on dirty fuels but environmental groups argue that it could simply transfer the problem if the gas originates from the environmentally-suspect fracking process in the US or elsewhere.

Similar - and perhaps interdependent - choices loom in agriculture. North Kerry and nearby Listowel saw its dairy industry transform into global protein behemoth Kerry Group, similar to other Irish agri-food giants such as Glanbia. Opportunities for agricultural expansion abound, but at what cost to our national emissions targets?

Up the estuary from Moneypoint is the country's second-biggest carbon-emitting installation, Aughinish Alumina. It is the biggest alumina plant in Europe, capable of refining bauxite into more than 1.9 million tonnes of alumina a year and is one of the biggest employers in the mid-west. But, after Moneypoint, it is the second-biggest single emitter of greenhouse gases in the country. When the EU begins to heavily fine us for our emissions tardiness, future governments will face unpalatable choices about what industries are right for the economy and what are not.

From Glin you can also see planes come and go from Shannon Airport. Dublin may be the hub for aviation in Ireland, but Shannon is the spiritual home for the global aircraft leasing business.

This industry - which generates huge revenue for Ireland and created a swathe of highly-paid jobs here - accounts for half the commercial aviation fleet in the skies around the globe. Many of these leased aircraft are registered in Ireland and companies such as AerCap and Avolon are in a position to influence the choices made by the industry as it comes under pressure to make flying more environmentally sustainable.

Another Irish company, Ryanair, was recently named one of Europe's top 10 carbon emitters and was described as "the new coal" by environmental campaign groups. Its huge European network means that, although it flies the newest fleet, it still flies the most miles and therefore is a legitimate target to take the rap for an industry facing huge climate-related challenges.

Ireland's success in aviation is often applauded, but there's potential pain there as the industry is a forced to meet these challenges through carbon taxes and other means which cannot be ignored.

The poor attempts to tackle the carbon that belches out of our car-centric transport system are also eulogised in concrete beneath the estuary. The Limerick Tunnel - like the rest of the extensive motorway network built here - is the sort of project that Irish governments love to approve for cars; not so much for trains. The fact that a significant proportion of voters prefer to sit in the private bubble of their cars each morning rather than on public transport undoubtedly heavily influences that political choice.

Nothing about climate change is simple. But, as a country, it's time that we woke up and took in the wider view and at least prepare to make some hard choices.

Belfast Telegraph