A recording of the full session “Enabling the Transition -National Policy and Carbon Budgets” will be available here.
The EPA projections published yesterday should be a stark wake-up call. Even with half a million EVs by 2030, emissions in transport will barely reduce. Reaching the full target of nearly 1 million EVs will reduce transport emissions by less than a quarter relative to 2018 – only half of what is needed.
Moreover, meeting this target could require a doubling of EV sales every year – which is not impossible, but would require sustained subsidies and a much faster rolling out charging infrastructure.
The same can be said across all sectors – the key measures in 2019 Climate Action Plan – were about doing the same thing but with a low carbon technology switch. Meeting the targets for EVs, heat pumps, wind and solar – are both extremely challenging, probably about the limit of what is achievable, while being essential to decarbonisation, and at the same time not enough: They will only take us half way to meeting our 2030 target.
What these projections show us, is that to meet our Paris Agreement commitment, we have to look beyond technology switches alone.
In the Energy Policy and Modelling group at the MaREI Centre in UCC we do whole-energy systems modelling with the TIMES-Ireland model to examine integrated pathways to meeting climate targets for transport, heat and electricity. This analysis we are undertaking now to support the CCAC carbon budget process - is reinforcing the message that relying on technology and fuel switches ALONE is a poor choice – we will risk making energy more expensive, less reliable, and maybe need to switch from imported oil to imported biofuel. In later decades, we will to use negative emissions technologies like Biomass with Carbon Capture and Storage. These are all problematic and could lead to unintended consequences. But we have developed a new scenario for energy systems models called a Low Energy Demand scenario, which illustrates how much easier and cheaper meeting our climate target can be if we focus on the structural drivers of demand.
Before we can make changes to demands, we have to UNDERSTAND the structural drivers. How are policies, practices, institutions and interests driving these demand trends?
For example in transport, the number of cars on our roads has tripled since 1990.
Remarkably, road traffic deaths and air pollution have decreased a lot despite this. But CO2 emissions have grown nearly as fast as the size of the car fleet.
And cars are getting bigger and more powerful. SUVs make up HALF of new car sales now, up from 13% a decade ago. SUV sales far outstrip those of EVs.
While cars are getting somewhat more efficient, the savings are far outstripped by growth in demand - so oil demand in transport has grown by nearly 2 and a half times since 1990, with oil demand in freight tripling.
If we simply switch petrol SUVs with electric SUV sales it will also cause problems – unless demand is tackled, electricity demand could double by 2030 relative to 2018, which will make decarbonising and ensuring the reliability of the grid very difficult.
So we have to tackle demand.
In UCC we are also developing models to understand HOW and WHY we travel, and how this is driving emissions.
For example, many car trips are for the school run. In 1986, less than a quarter of primary students travelled to school by car. That share is now 60%, and increasing. For secondary students, the share has increased from 11% to 42%. Only 2% of secondary school students now cycle to school, when in 1986, more students actually cycled than went to school by car.
This isn’t a surprise – we have devoted so much of our public realm to cars that it is hostile to people, especially children.
In my local village, near Kinsale in County Cork, there is no footpath to get to the local school – this is not an outlier. Many people who live even in the village prefer to drive to the village shop instead of walk or cycle, and drive their children to school. There is no public realm, no space for young people to play, but lots of road space and car parking.
So while I’m talking about transformative changes in transport, in many ways this is not radical - it’s FOOTPATHS, space for people. And I’m very glad that Niall very succinctly covered the need to make our spatial development and planning systems compatible with sustainable transport.
Urban cycling infrastructure deservedly gets lots of attention – we need to design towns and cities so that active and public transport modes are the default, easy choice.
And we should go beyond urban bike networks. Many homes in the countryside are within easy cycling distance of the next town or village. With electric bikes, hills disappear. But we need safe routes – many countries have series of rural bike routes.
Not everyone can cycle - this implies the need for much improved bus provision. I could take a bus to UCC but it would more than double the journey time and as I already own a car and parking is free at work, the bus is actually a more expensive, less comfortable option for me.
But it’s so important that this transition is fair. With structural changes of the scale required, we have to be upfront that there will be winners and losers.
We will have to use a combination of carrot and stick approaches. This transition won’t be fair and it won’t be feasible if the rich get all the carrot and the poor get all the stick.
For example, the second-most popular EV model sold in 2020 was the Tesla. Should the public be subsidising sports cars? Is it fair to subsidise people who buy new cars, while we push up the price of driving second hand cars through carbon taxes?
Remember that any fossil fuel or plug-in hybrid car brought into Ireland from now will be on the road well into our third and fourth carbon budget period. Should we not be taxing all new cars according to their lifetime emissions?
The same can be said for subsidising heat pumps and retrofits – we have to make sure that the rewards and the pain are distributed fairly.
The 2030 decarbonisation target we have committed to will be the great mission of this decade.
If we get it right, the prize is huge, but only if we manage to treat the grand challenges we face as a society collectively, instead of in silos. Climate, housing, biodiversity, health - these are all interconnected.
So to conclude, there is an saying that the best time to plant an oak tree was 100 years ago. The second best time is now. We don’t have a time machine to go back and fix bad choices made in the past, but we do have an incredible window of opportunity now to do something transformational, which future generations will thank us for.