Though governments should do their best to reduce carbon emissions, it is quite a stretch to claim, as RTÉ reported on Thursday evening, that the Climate Action Plan can “protect Ireland from the devastating consequences of climate change”.
reland has a climate and plenty of weather, but it does not inhabit its very own atmosphere. For every tonne of emissions in Ireland, around 600 get emitted somewhere else, of which almost 200 get emitted in China.
Cutting Irish emissions in half would make no sense as a unilateral policy. This does not imply that small countries should do nothing, but, even given the week that’s in it, the hyperbole needs to be toned down.
The COP26 conference in Glasgow has noted that the 2C warming limit, solemnly agreed five years ago in Paris, is not being achieved. The response apparently will be to endorse the even less plausible target of 1.5C.
Targets become substitutes for policies, and get more ambitious when not being achieved. This is evident in the Climate Action Plan too.
It had been the intention in the 2019 version to target 70pc renewable electricity by 2030. There has since been no progress in building the necessary grid infrastructure, while extra demand has been facilitated courtesy of the proliferating data centres.
The 70pc target was a demanding one — this year’s orange alerts about power outages followed a period of poor wind when some conventional stations also went down.
There was another scare last week, at a time when wind dependence is around 40pc. If Ireland gets to 80pc nine years from now — with no nuclear, no undiscovered rivers to dam for hydro, limited interconnection, and no gas storage — the system will be even more fragile.
The climate plan includes an intention that industrial users will agree to be switched off when things get tight, as they assuredly will, the more data centres get the nod.
The IDA’s traditional hand of calling cards included a steady and reliable, if not always cheap, power supply. This has been sacrificed for a quick fix of data centres, which use imported equipment, provide few jobs, and devour piles of scarce electricity.
The climate plan endorses the current céad míle fáilte for data centres. There will be a “review” — but there is not even a hint that the invitation might have been overdone.
Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Singapore, and several Chinese cities have been toning down their welcomes. The Irish data-centre industry has responded with pledges of going 100pc renewable, through buying wind farms for example. Is there really a secret system that will run a 24-hour data centre on interruptible power?
Data centres export cloud computing, the main component of value added is electricity, from a country not well supplied. Remember, the emissions get counted here, not in the consuming country. Somebody in the Irish public administration was not paying attention.
The sector-by-sector targets in the plan are supported by a presumption that no less than 5,000MW of new offshore wind capacity will be up and running by 2030. The biggest power station in the country, Moneypoint, is around 900MW, so the scale envisaged for offshore wind is enormous.
The wind industry appears to have persuaded the Government that Ireland’s offshore wind resource is not merely sizeable but is also unique. Some newspaper columnists have even rhapsodised about Ireland as “the Saudi Arabia of wind”.
With unfortunate timing, the Norwegian state company Equinor (formerly known as Statoil and no stranger to Ireland) chose Thursday — publication day for our climate plan — to announce it was getting out of offshore wind here.
Equinor is nowadays in transition from Big Oil to Big Wind and had partnered with the ESB to, as it were, explore for wind off the east, south and west coasts. The biggest project was a 1,500MW wind farm off the Shannon estuary. The company said it has “decided that other geographies are more interesting than Ireland”.
As with other elements of the plan, the offshore wind ambition is not supported by a clear policy. There will be studies, reviews.
The most important issue for Big Wind is how to get somebody else to pay for the costly grid infrastructure.
If EirGrid pays, the bill gets passed along to all electricity customers. The issue is not discussed in the plan or in the report of the Climate Council last week. If the companies are asked to pay the costs of bringing their heifer to the fair, same as everybody else, their enthusiasm for saving the planet could flounder on the Wild Atlantic Way. Ask Equinor.
If you agree that the planet has just one atmosphere, and that 200 countries is rather a lot, you will also agree that setting territorial targets for emissions in each of the 200 will fail to preserve the benefits of trade between them.
One Irish delegate to Glasgow opined last week that each country could try harder to grow its own food, and indeed they could. But cheese from the Sahara and bananas from Cork is not a price that needs to be paid.
The Greens in Ireland have made one valuable contribution, and it is their insistence on a higher carbon tax. Economists do not like production targets, much less differentiated by territory and sector.
It is just six years since the abolition of milk quotas was welcomed on the basis that Ireland, along with a few other corners of north-western Europe, had the climate for grass-fed dairying, and not for bananas.
The plan contains the following statement of intent: “Conduct a review of greenhouse gas emissions on a consumption basis, with a goal of ensuring that Irish and EU action to reduce emissions supports emission reductions globally, as well as on our own territories.”
The attribution to Ireland of emissions on dairy products produced here but consumed untaxed all over the world is a nonsense. Saudi petrol is consumed in Ireland, the emissions counted in Ireland, and taxed heavily in Ireland. Rightly so.
This country has been poorly served by its politicians, in agreeing to the sloppy measurement of national emissions, and by the absence of a coherent international agreement on taxing emissions where they are consumed.