Irish Times Column, Nov 3rd 2022.
Preventing climate breakdown requires an urgent end to the fossil fuel era. State agencies tasked with operating and regulating our energy infrastructure have ethical and legal obligations to wind down fossil fuel consumption in line with climate obligations. The good news is that solutions to transition to a zero-carbon energy system – renewables and energy demand reduction – are largely already mature and can address energy security and affordability challenges in tandem. But public bodies, including our electricity and gas network operators and regulator – EirGrid, Gas Networks Ireland and the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities – are not yet sufficiently reflecting these win-win opportunities in their planning and operations. The longer they delay factoring our collective climate obligations into their duties, the more we will dig ourselves into a fossil fuel hole that will be painful to escape from. “Climate commitments to net zero are worth zero without the plans, policies and actions to back it up”: António Guterres, UN Secretary General, had strong words for countries who are talking the talk, but not walking the walk on climate action, as a raft of new export reports launched last week warned the world is hurtling towards irreversible climate breakdown. Ireland is among the many culpable countries. Appallingly, our greenhouse gas emissions are set to rise yet again this year. Despite putting carbon budgets (which cap the absolute greenhouse gas emissions we can emit this decade) on a legal footing, our climate commitments are on life support unless the state takes urgent action. The lack of a concrete, long-term plan to phase out fossil fuels leads state agencies to continue operating as if they will be with us for decades. The role of natural gas in our energy system is under particular scrutiny because its supply requires long-lasting and costly infrastructure. Environmental groups are rightly concerned that new fossil fuel infrastructure will lock in its use, in a misalignment with legally-binding carbon budgets. In September, the government launched a public consultation and technical report from consultants CEPA on measures to ensure the security of energy supply, including the role of liquified natural gas (LNG) import and storage. But that report has a fatal flaw: it does not take carbon budgets into account, and assumes that demand for natural gas will rise this decade. Natural gas has been framed as a “bridge fuel” in the energy transition, being lower-carbon than coal and a flexible source of electricity that can balance intermittent wind and solar. But it’s increasingly clear that natural gas is a bridge to nowhere. A new report we undertook at MaREI in UCC for Friends of the Earth shows that to meet climate commitments, natural gas must be rapidly phased out of Ireland’s energy system, along with peat, coal and oil. Our analysis shows that gas demand for electricity generation must more than halve this decade and fall by 90% by 2040 relative to 2020. In contrast, Gas Networks Ireland’s 2021 Network Development Plan forecasts a 15% growth in gas demand, not conforming with carbon budgets. EirGrid’s analysis is also not aligned with emissions ceilings: Its annual outlook for electricity demand and supply projects ever stronger growth in electricity demand, mainly driven by data centres, that is likely to drive fossil fuel use more than carbon budgets permit. The State cannot develop a credible plan for energy security without taking its own climate policy into account. Our analysis does include a finding that may seem contradictory: Delivering on climate commitments requires new natural gas power stations. Otherwise, more polluting electricity sources (coal, oil and peat) will blow our carbon budget. However, our report also shows that the actual utilisation of power stations must halve this decade: natural gas must be reserved for times when electricity demand can’t be met with carbon-free electricity sources.
Winding down fossil fuels requires managing demand growth from data centres and building far more renewable capacity: more than four-times more wind and solar capacity must be built in the 2020s than in the 2010s. A failure to manage demand and rapidly deploy renewables – and to develop the electricity grid to facilitate them – will lead to more natural gas use, and blowing the carbon budgets.
These findings agree with the global outlook. In its World Energy Outlook report published last week, the International Energy Agency projects for the first time that policies in high-income countries will lead to a decline in natural gas use this decade, driven by climate measures and a strong outlook for clean energy. It also showed that to deliver on global climate commitments, gas demand needs to fall much more rapidly than these policies deliver. It is heartening at least that the Government has held firm on its commitment to not issue new fossil fuel exploration licences (unlike our neighbours across the Irish Sea), and is planning to end connections to the gas network. Again, quoting António Guterres: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”