In Part III of the report on the seminal national conference on what is Ireland’s greatest challenge as we move towards reopening and into the post-pandemic world, former president of Engineers Ireland PJ Rudden examines the area of energy efficiency and buildings. 

(Part IV will look at sustainable travel and behavioural change, as well as the conference conclusions. Part I can be read here. Part II can be read here.) 

Panel 3 – Energy efficiency and buildings: Chair Dr Frank McGovern EPA

Professor Lisa Ryan of UCD’s Energy Institute, who spoke on the ‘economics of decarbonisation’, noted that the new Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill requires that Ireland be ‘a climate resilient and climate neutral economy by 2050’.

For the first time, a 2050 net zero emissions target is put into law in addition to the requirement for five-year carbon budgets and a stronger Climate Change Advisory Council and a new Climate Action Plan 2021.

Ireland’s buildings have a higher carbon intensity due to our over-reliance on oil, gas and solid fuels. We also generally have larger houses and only 7% of housing is apartments, which are more compact and easier to insulate and heat to the new B2 Building Energy Rating (BER) standard.

In fact, Prof Ryan stated that Ireland has the highest energy consumption and the highest carbon intensity per capita in Europe. There is also lower energy efficiency in rented properties which are not owned by occupiers, where renters see no purpose in retrofitting a house which they do not own.

This difficulty in enforcing the energy performance requirement for rented properties is a market failure. ‘One Stop Shops’ are being set up in conjunction with a new 35% SEAI grant scheme to reduce transaction costs and break down behavioural barriers to deep retrofit.

In summary, the scale of the ambition is large, new policies are needed to address market failure and both technology and behavioural change are needed to meet our targets.

The next speaker was Professor Brian Norton, head of energy research at the Tyndall National Institute, University College Cork (UCC) and policy and international relations secretary at the Royal Irish Academy, and who spoke on the ‘decarbonisation of buildings’.

Decarbonise electricity and heat

Prof Norton’s proposal was to firstly reduce the energy demand of buildings and then decarbonise electricity and heat. He made the point that few of our buildings in Ireland are new and therefore the challenge to decarbonise is great. To target heat decarbonisation in older buildings, the heat pumps used need to be properly sized.

There is a place for district heating but also for distributed energy storage which can be used for electric cars also. He advised against air tightness of buildings post-COVID-19 as ventilation and air changes are necessary in indoor settings. Daylight is also important as it displaces artificial lighting which uses energy.

The total carbon footprint of a building includes building operations, together with the embodied carbon in building materials, plus the emissions from the construction phase and including renovation and demolition if any.

Demolition, however, should be avoided at all costs in favour of renovation and recycling/recovery of materials such as concrete or steel. In terms of retrofit of dwellings, the ‘elephant in the room’ is fuel poverty, so the financing of such schemes must be fair and equitable.

In conclusion, the ambition of the Climate Action Plan is the minimum required. Even the retrofit of 500,000 homes will not at all guarantee that the global temperature rise will be less than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The benefits of retrofit accrue in different ways to different stakeholders and may not be universal.

This was followed by Climate Change and Environmental Science Committee member Dr Matt Kennedy of UCC, who spoke on climate resilience. Resilience is the capacity of individuals, communities, institutions or businesses to survive, adapt and thrive against chronic stresses and acute shocks.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused $2.7 trillion in economic damage. By comparison, climate change impacts are projected to cost the global economy $54 trillion by 2040. "In terms of the spectrum of shocks, climate falls on the chronic side," he warned.

The principal beneficiaries of resilience must be the people which the world order must serve. We have seen what is estimated to be ‘once in a lifetime’ incidences that occurred in the recent deep freeze and electrical blackout in Texas, or in the case of the raging wild fires in California in 2017. An example closer to home is the relatively frequent flooding in Cork city centre, which certainly causes both shocks and stresses.

Move beyond risk assessment

Often we rely on out-of-date data to make decisions, but we need to move beyond risk assessment to clearly understand the risk, manage it and still create value, he said.

There was a very lively Q&A, which focused on the Irish rental market characteristics, lessons from Europe and the financial models we use to get to zero carbon by 2050.

The greater ‘social trust in communities’, which used the Netherlands as example, was mentioned. Regarding the rental market, Irish history is short on residential, but we do have commercial property examples that have decarbonised by 0-23%. Outside of ‘rent pressure zones’ BER ratings can impact on rental prices, but not within the city rental zones which is an ongoing supply issue.

In terms of managing any possible ‘gaming’ of the rental market to gain advantage, a good example of a system that appears to work is KFW public bank in Germany which gives cheap money to the commercial banks to fund retrofits, and which appears to work. There is also a significant deficit of required skills in the Irish construction industry to manage the ambitious 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.