This was a seminal national conference on what is Ireland’s greatest challenge as we move towards reopening and into the post-pandemic world, writes  PJ Rudden, former president of Engineers Ireland, in the first of four articles. 

(Part II will examine the area of planning electricity and heat; Part III will look at energy efficient and buildings; and the final part will delve into sustainable travel and behavioural change, as well as the conference conclusions.) 

The conference was planned in spring 2020 to be held in person in February 2021 but was delivered virtually as our country remained in a prolonged lockdown.

Yet the conference clearly showed the national ambition for climate action and offered many alternative pathways to realise that ambition. We will shortly have a new Climate Action Plan and the challenge of implementation is significant up to 2030 and on to 2050.

Introduction and conference programme

The conference was organised by the RIA Engineering and Computer Sciences Committee in collaboration with the Climate Change and Environmental Sciences Committee and supported by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Thought leaders from industry, academia and the public sector presented innovation ideas and discussed climate action strategies under the following four panel headings:

  • Policy outlook
  • Planning electricity and heat
  • Energy efficiency and buildings
  • Sustainable transport and behavioural change

Total visitors to the event platform were 320 and was attended by 264 climate experts and audience. It had brought new learning and expertise to bear on climate action not previously shown on the national and media stage.

The conference has already been instrumental in the shaping of national policy including the work of the Climate Change Advisory Board whose new chairperson Marie Donnelly chaired the first panel of speakers.

The conference was opened by president of the Royal Irish Academy Dr Mary Canning, who thanked the conference working group and conference chair Professor John Fitzgerald. She then introduced Eamon Ryan TD Minister for Environment Climate and Communications as our keynote speaker.

Prof Fitzgerald, who had just ended a five-year term as chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council stated in his opening remarks that "climate change is a disruption juggernaut!" and spoke of the challenges for Ireland especially in energy efficiency and in the relatively low decarbonisation of heat and transport, while noting better progress in decarbonisation of electricity.

He also stated that cement, one of the key construction materials, is responsible for 8% of carbon emissions in Ireland and steel only slightly less so, while building materials with low embedded carbon are in short supply due in part to the forestry felling crisis.

In his keynote address, Minister Eamon Ryan acknowledged the ‘incredible challenge’ we face to cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030.

He stated that we need to follow the new National Planning Framework for better holistic planning policy to link future development to public transport moving away from "dispersed development model…that has hollowed out our cities". He called for a "modal shift towards active and sustainable travel".

The minister spoke too of the offshore wind ambition to deliver a substantially higher level of 70% decarbonisation of electricity by 2030 (and 100% by 2050), building on the current success of EirGrid in achieving 40% renewable electricity in 2020.

He stated that this would require "an industrial approach" together with retrofit of some 500,000 homes by 2030. On agriculture, he said it would require "smaller herds at better financial returns".

It would also need "consensus politics building on the good work of his predecessor Richard Bruton". In the Q&A, he said we must build the North-South electricity interconnection, which is currently delayed in Northern Ireland, and also that the Celtic Interconnector from Cork to Brittany is required to ensure European connectivity and overall grid stability with high level integration of renewables as planned.

PANEL 1 – policy outlook – Chair Marie Donnelly, Chair, Climate Action Advisory Council

The first speaker in Panel 1 was Brian Carroll, assistant secretary responsible for Climate Action in the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications who outlined the new legislation that will support the climate transformation to low carbon.

He emphasised the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) call for "urgency to act" on climate action as imperative and the important roles to dates of the consensus from the Joint Oireachtas Committee and The Citizens Assembly. He promised "strong governance" and "effective citizens involvement" will accompany the revised Climate Action Plan 2021 when published later this year.

Professor Peter Thorne of Maynooth University and member of the IPCC outlined the outcome of recent IPPC reports concerning the need for better land management, sea level rise and coastal extremes.

Sea level, he stated, rose some 15cm in the 20th century and is projected to increase up to 1.1m unless very strong climate adaptation actions are taken.

He also referenced that the oceans are becoming more acidic which will change their chemistry and impact on habitats and biodiversity. "The time for action is now". he stated saying that if we take no action the Earth will heat to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050. Unless we make these changes, our warming climate will "represent a clear and present danger", he concluded.

The final speaker on Panel 1, ‘policy outlook,’ was Kerrie Sheehan, head of research and technology at SEAI. She commenced by outlining our 2020 performance against targets.

Under the EU 2030 Climate & Energy Framework, we are now committed to 32% renewable energy, 32.5% energy efficiency improvement and 40% cut in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), the latter target further increased to 55% by the EU Green Deal to achieve a climate neutral EU in 2050.

The three main energy vectors are in electricity, heat and transport where the targets were 40%, 12% and 10% respectively. The target for electricity was met but we fell below target with respect to transport and even more so with respect to heat where the performances were 8.9% and 6.3% respectively.

With respect to energy efficiency, we require significant scaling to achieve 500,000 homes retrofitted by 2030 when in fact the achievement to date in 2020 was less than 4,000.

There is ongoing SEAI research into a National Heat Study and a Technology Mapping & Value Creation project are ongoing together with the SEAI Research Development and Demonstration Programme to include:

  • Dublin Region Energy Masterplan – planning for 2030 and 2050 CO2 targets (by Codema and the four Dublin Local Authorities)
  • WindPearl aiming to improve the Operation and Maintenance of onshore wind turbine farms in Ireland (by UCD and TCD)
  • Identifying impact and importance of curtailment on high RES- Electricity systems

(by Mullan Grid, ABO Wind, Coillte and DCU)

In the subsequent Q&A, it was reasonably asked whether Ireland’s climate targets are fair? This was answered by referring to the Programme for Government 2020 and its commitment to both climate justice and a just transition where the midlands will see replacement jobs in bog wetting for sequestration of carbon and new employment opportunities in the retrofit programme.

(The conference was organised by the RIA Engineering and Computer Sciences Committee in collaboration with the Climate Change and Environmental Sciences Committee and supported by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency.) 

Author: PJ Rudden, past president of Engineers Ireland, is a strategic business consultant on policy, transformation and change management. He is a national leader in the delivery of transformation and innovation across various infrastructural sectors with implementation over the past 35 years including national media communications. He is member of the Institute of Directors and highly experienced in corporate governance. He is former chair of the Editorial Advisory Board of the 'Engineers Journal', leading a board of highly qualified professional engineers. In 2018 he was elected to the Engineering and Computer Science Committee of the Royal Irish Academy.