Grainne Reid and Gemma McCarthy suggest a three-pronged strategy for turning Dublin into a net-zero economy.

To decarbonise Dublin city requires a top-to-bottom approach. The commitments made by the government can only be met if the Dublin local authorities, civic representatives, businesses, its citizens and the managers of its infrastructure and built environment assets contribute to the large and wide-ranging changes needed.

A net-zero emission economy needs to be achieved by 2050, as advocated by the European Climate Foundation. Thirty years is a long time in terms of our daily lives – enough to raise a family and develop a career, or two.

In terms of business planning, regulatory cycles and investment payback, it is very short indeed. Aligning economic recovery, following the struggles of COVID-19, with the road to a zero-carbon future is crucial and highlights win-win opportunities.

Can we achieve a net zero economy?

The government has a binding European greenhouse gas emission target to reach by 2030, at least a 40% cut from 1990 levels, which will help the transition to net-zero emissions by 2050.

The Environment Protection Agency has indicated in its predictions that Ireland faces significant challenges in meeting the 2030 targets, especially as it is estimated that electricity demand will increase in the forthcoming years.

The burning question is how can all this change be achieved in a decade? The recent Supreme Court ruling on the government’s plan to tackle climate change brings this question to the fore.

The judgment ruled that the National Mitigation Plan, published in July 2017, does not meet Ireland’s legal obligations to tackle climate change, with a compliant replacement required to cover the whole period to 2050.

Transformative change

The government’s policy message is about transformative change, in what we do as well as how we do it. Infrastructure and the built environment have a large part to play but progress has been limited in reducing emissions in standard practices.

New types of assets fit for a net-zero future will need to be brought online while other assets currently in use will have to be decommissioned or re-purposed. Plans for some new assets will need to be revised or scrapped.

The four local authorities across Dublin have come together to develop Climate Action Plans as a collaborative response to making Dublin a climate resilient city.

The energy efficiency targets for each local authority have been set for 2020 only, beyond this the picture is unclear. Based on the Supreme Court ruling we must ask, is there an opportunity for the government to provide the local authorities and city stakeholders with clearer direction to manage the transition to a net zero economy?

Achieving net zero

To make Dublin a net-zero-emission city requires top-to-bottom action. Three strands of activity are required to meet the challenge.

First, we need to create a clean energy revolution. This will involve transforming the energy system, including how we produce and use energy.

Renewable electricity is one of the game-changers (for example wind, solar and tidal generation). Other forms of low-carbon electricity generation, such as biomass and new forms of energy supply such as hydrogen, will play a part in the future energy mix too, helping displace fossil fuels as a primary energy source.

If electricity production can be decarbonised, many aspects of daily life can be changed, from the way we heat our houses to the way we travel.

The pandemic crisis is already providing an important opportunity to decarbonise transport and promote active travel. An increased fleet of electric buses by 2030 in line with the Climate Action Plan 2019 is required by Dublin Bus, with the first hydrogen fuel cell buses to be trialled by Bus Éireann between Dublin city centre and Ratoath later this year.

DART+ Programme

The DART+ Programme is another important public transport project which will improve services in the greater Dublin area, increasing the rail network by 100km, but importantly this programme will provide a sustainable and electrified rail service.

Second, decarbonising the energy system is a huge undertaking, with significant technical, political, social and economic challenges. But the scale can be reduced by curbing energy demand.

The amount of new generating and transmission infrastructure required can be minimised if we step up efforts to improve energy efficiency – to make available power go further. This will involve radically transforming our approach to energy conservation in the design, construction and operation of assets.

Finally, it is now clear that it will not be possible (at least in the next half-century) to totally remove all functions that emit CO2 and what we can’t remove we will need to capture and store to stop it entering the atmosphere.

The majority of scenarios for meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting the temperature rise to 1.5°C involve some level of CO2 sequestration, because they assume the global economy will not be able to transition away from fossil fuels fast enough.

Sequestration options include land-use change, ecosystem restoration and reforestation, as well as technological solutions to capture and store carbon.

Zero emission targets have brought into focus the need for action on aspects that are more difficult. And it is only now that a zero emissions target has been set at a European level that the significance of the third strand, capturing and storing carbon, is truly clear as the infrastructure industry is forced to consider how far it can really go in reducing its emissions to zero.

Opportunity in disruption

Anybody with experience of trying to advocate change knows that responses are often slow. Therefore, the process of formulating what we have to do differently, and then doing it, should start now.

Yet the challenge just got harder. With government and local authorities focused on the economic and social impacts of COVID-19, will zero emissions be accorded the necessary urgency?

The zero emission agenda can play an important part in Dublin’s economic recovery, creating new jobs and revenue streams.

Sometimes it is the very existence of disruptive circumstance that allows us to change things for the better and break out of ‘business as usual’ inertia.

We have all seen how necessity has turned agile working from the domain of progressive business into a commonplace and acceptable way of working, and much has been made of the expectation that a permanent shift in working culture will prevail.

Alleviating congestion

COVID-19 could result in a long-term reduction in demand for transport, alleviating congestion on the capital’s road and rail networks.

Increased pedestrian and cyclist provision have already been made available by Dublin City Council through its COVID-19 ‘mobility intervention programme’, developed in conjunction with the National Transport Authority to necessitate social distancing.

We know the change will have drawbacks in other areas – not least reducing revenues and employment in the transport or commercial office sectors. Set against this, the net-zero agenda can play an important part in Dublin’s economic recovery, creating jobs and revenue streams.

The trial pedestrianisation of a number of streets in Dublin city centre has been popular, with 90% approval ratings from consumers and businesses alike.

With the easing of COVID-19 restrictions it will be important to ensure the prioritisation of sustainable modes of transport and that local authorities do not miss the opportunity to build on the change which has already occurred.

Hundreds of thousands of Dublin’s homes will require significant energy efficiency improvement under the ‘curb energy demand’ mandate, through locally deployable packages that can boost employment.

World’s largest building renovation project

Dublin is one of eight European cities which will benefit from funding as a participant in BUILD UPON2, the world’s largest building renovation project.

Buildings are responsible for 40% of energy consumption in the EU, with Irish homes using 7% more energy than the European average. Renovation of the existing building stock is key to achieving the decarbonisation goals, with the government’s Climate Action Plan 2019 stating the need to increase the building energy ratings in half a million Irish homes to help achieve a zero-carbon future.

District-scale clean energy interventions – comprising systems of diverse low carbon generation, distribution and storage – not only provide local employment but also keep the ongoing energy spend retained in the local economy.

Examples of low carbon energy are being planned and piloted in Dublin. The Tallaght District Heating Scheme will be Ireland’s first district heating scheme which will utilise waste heat from a local data centre to supply a centralised large-scale heat pump, 58% of this heat delivered will be zero carbon, saving 1,441 tonnes of CO2 annually in its initial phase.

Dublin City Council has already invested in the installation of elements of a district heating network in the Dublin docklands, while a district heating scheme will be utilised within Poolbeg Strategic Development Zone.

District heating

The increase in data centres in Ireland may provide an opportunity for district heating to be employed in other parts of the Dublin region.

There will likely be an enhanced push towards electric vehicles, not just electric cars but other forms of mobility such as e-bikes and possibly even e-scooters in time.

The disruption of threading new electricity infrastructure through an already congested public realm can be eased by advanced planning, starting with spatial and temporal mapping of existing capacity against predicted demand.

The recovery from COVID-19 represents a clear opportunity for cities to make their economy greener. The government’s stimulus packages announced in late July included the commitment of €10 million to the Green Enterprise Fund to fund innovation in the circular economy in Ireland.

The objectives of the fund are to enhance competitiveness and resilience of the Irish economy while seeking technical solutions to reduce material consumption and increase energy efficiency in construction, plastics, food, resources and raw materials.

However, this fund represents only a small percentage of the €5.2 billion stimulus package announced by the government.

Propelling the decarbonisation agenda 

With cities forming the epicentres of recent infection, there is also the possibility that questions over the resiliency of our current lifestyles will bring a heightened appreciation of good urban planning.

Careful placemaking and adherence to design principles that promote connected, active and sustainable lifestyles can impact our ability to live healthy and low carbon lives.

Wider issues that the local authorities will be considering with relevance to the built environment are:

  • Changes to Dublin’s electricity infrastructure;
  • The role of digitalisation in understanding demand profiles, latent capacities and managing/staggering loading to minimise the peaks and fill troughs;
  • Retrofit of assets;
  • Synergies between buildings, transport and energy;
  • Framework to support cities in using public procurement to purchase innovation driven solutions.

Florence and Milan are examples of cities investing in 'smart' recovery, providing the simplification and acceleration of the provision of digital services for citizens, strengthening of the ICT network to support it and the 'right to network', ensuring that internet access is available for all thereby facilitating agile working.

Driving the decarbonisation agenda will require unprecedented connectedness in thinking and effort between organisations that have historically operated in silos.

This is because, in practice, the systems that make up our built and natural environments are heavily interdependent. CODEMA, Dublin’s Energy Agency, is part of the TOMORROW Project which aims at empowering local authorities to lead the transition towards low-carbon, resilient and more liveable cities by engaging citizens and stakeholders in the development of 2050 transition roadmaps.

Importantly, the citizen engagement will be focused on the quality of life for citizens gained through the low carbon transition process.

COVID-19 has shown that in an emergency the barriers do come down and all of the key actors work together. Climate change has been declared an emergency – albeit one that is playing out over a longer period of time.

The current crisis could give the local authorities agency to drive integration of effort on net-zero to deliver enhanced results. It will require many complex decisions over time, but there are low regret opportunities that can be started immediately.

Energy efficiency retrofit, district scale energy systems, uptake of electric vehicles, mapping of electric infrastructure and prioritising active travel: our industry should support these measures to help stimulate economic activity and create jobs as we recover from the effects of COVID-19, at the same time as safeguarding our city for the long term.

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