Irish Times Column, May 4th, 2023.

Minister Eamon Ryan brought Ireland’s draft long-term climate strategy to Cabinet last week, before its submission to the European Commission, more than three years after the original deadline. The purpose of the long-term strategy is to explore pathways to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across energy, transport, industry, agriculture, land use and buildings by 2050. The Government’s immediate focus in climate planning has been setting carbon budgets and a Climate Action Plan to deliver on its increased ambition in cutting emissions this decade. Immediate and steep emissions cuts are urgent to meet our commitments for climate change and the Paris Agreement. But a long-term strategy is also an essential part of the planning process for several reasons.

Firstly, even though 2050 is 27 years away, investment decisions made in the 2020s will have consequences for longer than this. The 20 year lifetime of a new diesel truck or oil boiler implies that to meet net zero before 2050, sales of equipment that run on fossil fuels must stop before 2030. Moneypoint power station has been operating since 1987. The consequences of new roads and decisions on the built environment will be felt for generations.

Secondly, a long-term vision is necessary to consider the wind-down of fossil fuel infrastructure, like the natural gas network, a state-owned asset worth 2.7 billion euros. Reckoning with net-zero creates existential questions for all industries associated with fossil fuels, from the Whitegate oil refinery to car mechanics. Similarly, it’s essential to avoid locking in new fossil fuel infrastructure. An import terminal for liquified natural gas (LNG) may be justifiable with the energy system of today, or even of 2030. But demand for natural gas could fall by 90 per cent by 2040 as carbon budgets get tighter and renewable energy gathers pace: this thorny issue should be explicitly confronted when planning for energy security and climate action. On the other hand, planning to replace fossil fuels with zero-carbon sources of energy requires dramatically increasing the size of the power system and bolstering the electricity network. Renewable electricity capacity – mainly from wind and solar – may need to grow by a factor of eight by 2050 to meet net-zero, which will be both enormously challenging and beneficial. If this is to be achieved, the investment, planning and innovation must start now.

Thirdly, the land use review report commissioned by the Environmental Protection Agency has signalled that very dramatic shifts in how land is used is necessary to restore nature and carbon sinks in forests and peatlands, with significant agricultural land diverted to other uses by mid-century. It takes decades for forests to begin sequestering carbon in earnest, and is therefore a sector where it is particularly important to align short-term actions (a dramatic increase in afforestation) with the long-term goal.

However, a significant hurdle remains before a pathway for net-zero in agriculture can be developed: There is yet no consensus on what climate neutrality means for methane, a very potent but short-lived greenhouse gas that is mainly emitted from cattle and sheep in Ireland. For carbon dioxide, it is accepted that any remaining emissions to the atmosphere must be balanced by removals (hence “net zero”). But for methane there is ambiguity, causing uncertainty for the future of the livestock sector that should be quickly resolved. While there is a valid argument for treating methane differently, any deviation from international norms should be done with great caution and in a way that ensures Ireland contributes fairly to the global effort to keep temperature rise to 1.5 degrees.

Despite the relentless rise in global greenhouse gas emissions, the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is still just about possible, but requires rapid and transformative change across all sectors. A recent report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) has set out what it calls credible pathways to meeting the goal, with a rapid energy transition away from fossil fuels and reducing energy demand through efficiency at its heart. It also emphasises the need to cut non-CO2 emissions from agriculture, restoring forests, and developing new carbon capture technologies to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Each of these pillars of long-term transformation require urgent action: we simply don’t have time to wait.

The IEA has previously demonstrated the power of mapping long-term scenarios. A headline finding in its landmark Net Zero by 2050 report – that new fossil fuel extraction projects are inconsistent with the 1.5 degrees goals – has framed the global discourse on the energy sector since 2021.

Ultimately, planning for 2050 forces us to ask what kind of world we want our children and grandchildren to inherit, then backing up this vision with policies and plans. Unless these transformative changes are adopted, our legacy will be a destabilised climate and great precarity.