- 20 Jun 22
Environment minister and Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan, talks about the key issues we face as look to build a sustainable future, including greenhouse gas emissions, turf-cutting, public transport, electric cars and more. Photography: Miguel Ruiz.
It has been a difficult few months for the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and Minister for Transport, Eamon Ryan. The leader of the Green Party has been in the wars, with the controversy over turf cutting being followed by a doom-laden analysis of where we stand on greenhouse gas emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency. This is not a brief that is likely to win any Minister a new set of adoring fans. And yet it is, by common consensus, the most important issue facing not just people in Ireland, but also humanity as a whole. So where do we go from here? In this special interview, as part of our focus on sustainability, I got the opportunity to shoot the breeze with the Minister last week. Here are some of the key issues that we covered.
I was quite taken aback yesterday, when the Environmental Protection Agency said that Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions would only fall by 28% by 2030 – way short of the legally binding Climate Act, which targets 51%. First of all, do you accept what they’re saying?
Absolutely, I think what they’re saying is true. We need to do a lot more, and that’s an opportunity as well. It’s being framed as a big difficulty and a great cost, but we do have to do it. We have to get each area – agriculture, transport, industry and energy – to commit to doing that. It’s such a challenge that if one sector says they can’t do any more, we won’t meet the targets.
How did the maths go so wrong?
I don’t think we did get it so wrong. You have to remember we’re only at the start of developing climate action. We only agreed to it last November. They’re looking back at last year’s emissions, which went up for two reasons. One was a rebound from Covid, when transport emissions went down 16%. We’ve come out of it and people have started driving again. Secondly, and probably the biggest factor, gas prices shot up three to four times from the previous year. With that money, point coal is cheaper, so it’s largely those two factors. But the truth of what the EPA is saying, is that to do what we need by the end of the decade, it’s going to take a huge effort.
If you were to bullet-point areas where you know we can do better, what would they be?
I know we can do better in transport. A lot of the tension is over having to switch to electric vehicles, but actually that won’t work if it’s just that alone. For a variety of reasons, our roads are full of cars, so we need to reduce the volume of traffic and really promote the switch from motors to walking, cycling and public transport. And also, look at new ways of sharing public transport. It’s about changing the entire transport system.
Particularly coming out of Covid, maybe taking some of the road space that isn’t being used for commuting – let’s accelerate bus and cycle lanes by taking some of that road space. In Blackrock and Dun Laoghaire, what they did along the coast was a really good example. It was quick, it wasn’t expensive, it had community backing and it transformed the place by putting a line down the road. What I’m saying is that councils should come to us with ideas for that, to accelerate bus and bike lanes.
What about agriculture?
We’ve really ramped up forestry. What the EPA showed is that land use in Ireland doesn’t store carbon – it’s actually a source of carbon. The science of that has changed in the last year, as we’ve realised it’s actually a bigger source of carbon than we thought. So to store carbon, firstly the land use review needs to look at the island as a whole, and think how we can operate storing carbon, protecting nature and stopping pollution. I think there’s a project we’re going to do where we’re not converting every farmland into forest, where you have to stop farming – we have flexibility. So farmers could have forestry on their land and strip forests along rivers in particular. In pockets of the farm, you could put smaller forests in – that is one of the things we could do to really increase forestry.
In Germany, they’ve just announced a €9 monthly public transport ticket. Shouldn’t we be trying something radical like that?
We just cut public transport for people under 25 by half, so that’s not insignificant. Just last week, we cut public transport for everyone else by 20%. People are noticing that, particularly when prices are rising with everything else. In Dublin now, you can get a single ticket that works for 90 minutes. Those measures are part of getting people back on public transport.
I was talking to someone who runs a pub, and he was saying that the problem for his employees is that their shifts often end at 1am. The DART doesn’t run that late due to antisocial behaviour – but isn’t that giving in? Surely we need a 24-hour infrastructure for public transport.
We do, we need a night-time economy. I’m talking about Dublin here, but we do need to allow people to go out, socialise and get to events and nightclubs. I do think we have an obligation to provide those transport services. We have to look at the whole of public transport, but specifically the bus routes, because it was designed for a commuting system. I don’t think that will go back in the same way. If that’s the case, we can take some of those new buses to run at nighttime.
Have you had conversations with the DART or the Luas? They do seem to have safety concerns for their employees.
With reason – they have to be safe, and particularly bus drivers, as they’re more open in a way. The majority of people in our city are civil. We can’t say we have to withdraw public transportation just because a small number of people are going to cause problems – we need to find ways to overcome that, with policing or whatever.
In the Dáil recently, I could sense your emotion talking about turf and the health risks associated with it. Are you disappointed that in the end you had to reach a compromise?
We have to go back with draft regulations. I don’t think it will change that much from last September when we did the first consultations. I was chatting to Michael Fitzmaurice and all the other TDs who were interested in it, and we weren’t that far apart. This was always designed to address the retail end of it, not the householder or the person out cutting turf in their own barn. These regulations will not impinge on that. It is about the retail sale, and we do it for good reason because we have to treat all the solid fuels at the same time.
Turf is declining in use, but we have to manage it in a way that’s respectful and protective of those who are at risk of poverty. There is a real health issue, because there are people dying prematurely. Environmental issues and poverty go together with bad health outcomes, so this was always about how to protect people’s health and address fuel poverty at the same time.
Were you in danger of possibly bringing down the coalition?
I don’t think so.
The cost of renewables is also going up – how do we combat that?
We’re in a series of five auctions. The average offer price for successful offers in the first auction was about 7.4 cent per kilowatt hour and this one’s gone up to about 9.7 cent, so it is a significant jump. There’s a combination of factors – the main one being the price of steel, silicon and so on. Within the last year, everything’s gone through the roof because of Covid and the war in Ukraine. There are also complex things around how the auction was designed. It’s still a fraction of the cost of electricity provided by gas, so it’s helping us avoid the bills going up further. In the long run, the real benefit is that the fuel itself is free. There’s a big upfront cost, and you need to build the grid and balance it, and have the capability of turning other devices on and off. But this new industrial revolution is based on variable power, variable renewable demand and balancing it out, and in Ireland we have a lot of wind and some solar power balance as well. It’s the way it’s going to go.
We’ve set ourselves a 5GW offshore wind electricity target by 2030. In light of broader EPA concerns, is that achievable?
Yes, and we can go way beyond that. The initial target after that is about 30GW, and at the moment we’re probably using about 5GW. So if we develop 30GW, that’s about seven times our current power supply, but that’s a fairly modest target in terms of the amount of offshore resources we have. It’s a race. So many countries are doing this now. Britain’s probably ahead, because they have the largest amount of offshore wind, and they’re going to develop 50GW. Germany is switching away from Russian gas – they’ve developed 30GW and now want 70GW by 2030. I had the European Energy Commissioner in here this morning and we’re going to have to plan how we do this in a coordinated way.
This is the biggest industrial investment in Europe in my lifetime. By doing it collaboratively, as an EU project as well as an Irish project, the scale of the power brings loads of benefits. For Ireland, particularly, it helps us meet our climate targets, it’s much more secure than fossil fuels from distant shores, and we can use the power to make industries more sustainable here.
With regard to electric cars, I know the trade organisation here is concerned that we’re not progressing with charging stations, to get to that million vehicles by 2030.
Like so many other places, we need to accelerate. We were the first to roll out a national network charging point, even though it was kinda slow when you look at it now. The new machines are so much faster. There is significant funding going into it – not a lot right now, where it’s quite hard to get an electric car because of the disruption of Covid, supply chains and the war in Ukraine. But that will, please God, end soon and we will see EV cars take off rapidly. That’s one of the targets I think we will meet. We will need cars and particularly in rural Ireland, you can’t run a bus to wherever.
An electric vehicle has a fraction of the moving parts of a combustion engine, so there’s less maintenance and they’re much cheaper to run. Yes, they’re more expensive, but as they become mass-produced, the price will come down. We then need to ask: do we have the lithium, the copper, the steel for a world where everyone is driving around in an electric car? I think that will come into focus, because an average car is parked 92% of the time. So can we do something where you get exactly the same service, but only spend for 8% of that time? That’s a huge saving.
Looking 20-30 years beyond that, what might the target be?
Our sea area is seven times our land area. What’s happening at the moment in Ireland, is that we’ll be part of a northwest European super grid, including France and going down to Spain and Portugal. At some point in this grid, there’s always wind blowing. By building offshore wind energy in all these locations – the Baltic Sea, North Sea and Irish Sea – it can ship about 2GW of power an hour with very low losses. It’s direct current, and because of that, you can pull it over long distances – it’s like pulling a taut rope.
We’re about to build a new one between Cork and France, and one between south Dublin and Wales – and we also have an existing one in north Dublin. It is extraordinary what can be achieved if we work together. More than anything else, that’s what I want to see.
Any other good news to report from the Greens?
Yes, later this year we will introduce a deposit refund scheme for plastic bottles and cans. We are switching away from single use plastics. Lastly, nobody really noticed it, but Malcolm Noonan introduced electoral commission legislation the other day and it’s looking at the process of reducing the voting age for local elections.
• Watch this space for further reflections from Minister Eamon Ryan...
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