In Part IV 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 sustainable travel and behavioural change, as well as the conference conclusions. 

(Part I can be read here. Part II can be read here. Part III can be read here.) 

Panel 4 – Sustainable travel and behavioural change – Chair: Margaret E Ward, CEO of Clear Ink and Broadly Speaking

The first speaker on this panel was Dr Lorraine D’Arcy of TU Dublin on ‘Low Carbon Transport and Mobility’. She mentioned the modern transport context of the '15-minute village', fulfilling most of your household needs with a 15-minute walk from your home both in the urban and rural contexts and using public transport from there for trips further afield.

Indeed, one of the benchmark criteria for the EU Commission European Green Capital Award given each year to the city in Europe with the most sustainable infrastructure is that there is a public transport link and green/blue open spaces within 300 metres of your home.

In terms of mobility and transport considerations, she expanded on the importance of place making in terms of neighbourhood, catchment, corridors and connections, health and wellbeing. Increasingly the health and wellbeing aspects of active travel are coming into sharp focus after COVID-19.

Clonakilty in Co Cork was referenced as a sustainable town capable of managing the easy movement of people along its streets and one where the quality of life is not constrained by unnecessary traffic movements.

The conference was told that according to the World Health Organisation, if all citizens in the EU aged 20-74 cycled or walked an additional 15 minutes per day, 100,000 premature deaths could be prevented each year. This a startling statistic showing the true value of active travel.

In summary, this presentation showed that sustainability in towns and cities can be achieved through a structured approach based on spatial planning (to avoid the need for travel), transport planning (to prioritise the preferred sustainable modes of travel) and engineering (to gain maximum energy and carbon efficiency).

The next speaker was Geraldine Herbert on the ‘Challenges of meeting electric car national targets. The government has committed to banning the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030.

As part of the Climate Action Plan, the government have set a target to have 936,000 electric vehicles (including battery EVs and plug-in hybrid EVs) on Irish roads by 2030. The number of electric vehicles proposed is 840,000 EVs and 100,000 electric vans. There are currently 25,000 electric cars on Irish roads which is 8% in 2020, almost double of 4% in 2019.

Volkswagen, Toyota and Volvo have undertaken to have 50% of their fleets electric by 2025 or 2030. GM will sell only zero-emission vehicles by 2035, Jaguar will be all-electric by 2025 and Ford will have 100% of its Europe fleet zero emission, all-electric or plug-in hybrid and moving to all-electric by 2030. EU Regulation 2019/631 sets new CO2 emission targets with 15% reduction from 2025 and 37.5% reduction from 2030.

Current government incentives include a €5,000 SEAI grant, Home Charger Scheme, EV Toll Incentive Scheme and reduction in the Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT). Norway has by far the highest EV market penetration in the world with 54% of all cars sold in 2020 being electric.

Key to their success is price parity with petrol and diesel cars, high income levels and car free policies. In Ireland, the issues for consumers are financial barriers, range anxiety, behavioural issues and dealership conditions. However, electric car costs may reach parity with petrol and diesel by 2023 due to the cost of batteries falling sharply year on year.

Thus, price parity and incentives are key to early EV adoption. Concluding her presentation, she opined that while switching from fossil-fuel cars to electric is good for climate action, the better overall solution ‘would be to provide people with more transport options.’

The final presentation of the conference was on a most interesting topic, ‘Nudging Climate Action using Behavioural Science.’ Eleanor Denny, associate professor in the Economics Department at Trinity College Dublin defined a nudge as something in our environment that encourages us to change our behaviour. A nudge is neither mandatory nor financially driven.

In order to nudge we need to remove a ‘’friction and respond to social cues and often we don’t have enough information to make informed decisions. With regard to cycling, frictions that need to be removed include distance to city centre, apartment living, lack of electric bikes, inadequate facilities at home or work. Other factors are ‘trip chaining’ (lack of facilities at public transport locations) and lack of segregated cycle lanes.

Denny states that "we are social creatures and respond to social cues". She noted the example of people feeling "safety in numbers", so that if there is a high proportion of people cycling on a route, this encourages more to do so.

Other examples of social cues are clear signalling that a car is either hybrid or electric by, for example, having a particular colour streak along the side bumper or bonnet, or telling energy customers on their utility bill how their usage compares to that of their neighbours.

Availability if information is also a factor in consumer behaviour, for example, the documenting of carbon emissions of airline flights can and has been proved to influence choice of flight carrier. The impact of showing travellers CO2 emission can lead some to choose a carrier with lower emissions but at greater cost.

Of all these examples clearly show that understanding customer behaviour can help to determine the customer choice of more sustainable products or behaviours provided they are correctly positioned, highlighted and supported.

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.


Professor John Fitzgerald assisted by panel chairs Marie Donnelly, Dr Phil Hemmingway, Dr Frank McGovern and Margaret E Ward.

Areas that resonated strongly with the chairman John Fitzgerald and the panel chairpersons:

Panel 1 – Policy Outlook – Marie Donnelly (who replaced Prof Orla Feely UCD at short notice) but not available for the discussion panel session in the evening)

  • We have a plan to decarbonise now we need to implement it!

Panel 2 – Planning Electricity and Heat – Dr Phil Hemmingway

  • Concept of energy systems not just power systems
  • Still a lot of open questions on national grid stability
  • Revolution needed nor evolution needed
  • Greater public acceptance is key
  • The new interconnectors are needed but are a challenge
  • Ireland has the lowest district heating in Europe
  • Sector coupling needed for heat and electricity
  • Greater need for heat sector planning and investment

Panel 3 – Energy Efficiency and Decarbonisation – Dr Frank McGovern

  • Complexity of ‘solution space’ and the challenges – ‘it seems simple but it’s not … it’s the streets we live in … other factors drive people’s choices’
  • Building Energy Rating (BER) is not the determinant of price and value
  • Energy poverty is a key issue for retrofit and can be enhanced
  • Target the houses off the gas grid first
  • Need more long-term planning thinking for 2050 beyond 2030
  • We need integrated systems for energy management

Panel 4 – Sustainable Transport and Behavioural Change – Margaret E Ward

  • We need brave and bold workplaces based on government policy
  • We need more behavioural science on available options
  • We tax fuel consumption by cars but not by aviation
  • We need emission/cost regulation for aviation
  • Transport policy is gendered – Dublin females cycle shorter distances
  • Public transport needs more thought for rural areas
  • Clear communication is needed to effect climate action

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.