There is a natural human inclination to break down any task or challenge into constituent parts. It’s normal to want to visualise it in nice bite-sized time delineated chunks. And that’s where the 7% average annual emission reduction target came from. It’s an expression of the average reductions required to achieve the 2030 emissions targets set in the Programme for Government and now as captured in the Climate Action Bill.
The destination is clear and unequivocal, but there is much wrong in expressing the journey as a relative declining balance.
To put the 7% number in context, it is huge. Applied in 2021, it would mean our emissions would have reverted by to 1990 levels. Or for another indicator, during 2020 when vast swathes of the economy were closed, the overall emissions reduction barely reached 7%. That illustrates the scale of the challenge which will require long term investment in the decarbonisation of almost every system.
But long-term investments tend to have long-term payback periods. The crude 7% annual average does not consider the exponential nature of the gains to be made over time. For example, currently approximately 40% of our electricity is generated from renewable energy. Offshore windfarms (and more onshore renewables also) will take a number of years to plan, design, construct and connect to the grid. Their impact, which will be very significant, will not be felt until the latter part of the decade when we expect to achieve 70% renewable electricity on the grid.
Meanwhile, every home in Ireland will have a smart meter by 2030, and our national retrofit program ought to be fully ramped up to achieve its targets of 500k homes. This will make a significant difference to our residential energy footprint and emissions basis – but it will all only being to show meaningful results against our climate ambition in the latter part of the decade.
Initiatives like off-shore wind, or the home energy retrofitting scheme, or even the transition to electric vehicles, these all take significant time to move through barriers, both natural and artificial, including the availability of skilled and trained labour, equipment, materials, planning, design, incentive structures etc.
In each of these cases, the gains will be cumulative over the years. Rather like a snowball rolling down a hill, it will move faster and get bigger at the same time. The great majority of progress towards the target will be made towards the end of the plan.
But that is not how the Government is presenting and communicating it. The 7% annual average has been allowed to gain popular currency and this could have potentially disastrous consequences for maintaining support for and delivering successfully upon the goals of the plan.
7% is simply unattainable in the early years of the plan, perhaps not until 2025 at least. In these circumstances, the Government is setting itself up for failure. Instead of reporting positive progress towards the target each year it will be begging forgiveness for failure to deliver a 7% reduction in the early years.
Constant criticism for failure to meet a sound bite target, could quickly shroud our climate ambition and the associated Climate Action Plans in negativity and deplete the public goodwill and support which is absolutely critical to the success of the whole endeavour.
In these circumstances, the Government must act urgently to recast the presentation of our climate ambition and set out clear and achievable yearly targets and milestones that will lead to the overall objective. This might start out with annual reductions of just 2% or 3% in the early years and build exponentially throughout the lifetime of the plan.
This does run the political risk of the Government being accused of back-ending the plan and kicking the proverbial climate can down the road. That is a risk worth taking, however, if it means that public buy-in to the overall plan can be secured by seeing clear goals and objectives being achieved from day one – sustainably achieving a value-led climate ambition over the long term.