Re: 3rd & final part of “When the well runs dry”, Irish Times series

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Running on empty

Road to nowhere: traffic near the Westlink toll bridge in Dublin. ‘Motorways have become the sinews of sprawl, encouraging the creation of new suburbs that are more car-dependent than anything previously built.’
Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Life After Oil: Ireland has been allowed to develop in a way that sends people into their cars when they should be getting out of them, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

Cars and trucks, roads and motorways, traffic congestion and suburban sprawl: Ireland is more like North America than northern Europe. And with the Government spending €30 million a week on motorways and other major road schemes, we are being locked into a US-style reliance on imported oil.

Oil accounts for more than 57 per cent of our overall energy consumption, significantly higher than the EU average. Figures also show that for every 1 per cent rise in economic growth in Ireland, oil use goes up by 2 per cent – mainly due to the steep rise in car numbers, particularly over the past 10 years.

Ireland is already among the most car-dependent countries in the world, according to a report published in 2000 (Transport Investment and Economic Development, by David Banister and Joseph Berechman, University College London Press). Figures showed that the average car here is driven 24,400km per year, a distance that is 70 per cent higher than France or Germany, 50 per cent higher than Britain and 30 per cent higher than the US. These statistics reflect our dispersed settlement pattern and the huge growth in long-distance commuting. The number of people driving to work jumped 16 points to 55 per cent between 1991 and 2002, while the average length of commutes increased by nearly 50 per cent, from 11km in 1996 to nearly 16km in 2002.

Over the past 10 years, Dublin has been allowed to sprawl all over Leinster, with suburban estates springing up on the outskirts of villages and towns within an 80-100km radius. And the Government didn’t lift a finger to halt this unsustainable sprawl or to ensure a steady supply of affordable housing in the capital.

Local councillors were allowed to get on with rezoning vast tracts of land for commuter housing in places such as Gorey, Co Wexford, nearly 100km from Dublin. While this was under way, Martin Cullen – then minister for the environment – declined to use the powers available to him under the 2000 Planning Act to rescind the local plan.

Last October, after a sod-turning ceremony for the N11 Gorey bypass, Cullen – now wearing his hat as Minister for Transport – hailed it as one of the fastest-growing towns in the south-east. “The demographic change which Gorey has undergone has been immense. We in Government must respond to this change,” he said.

In effect, he was conceding that there had been a failure of political leadership. Although Taoiseach Bertie Ahern once identified sustainable development as “fundamental” to his vision of Ireland, neither he nor his Government did anything to make it a reality on the ground. Instead, we got rampant unsustainable development.

Houses on the outskirts of Carlow, Gorey, Mullingar, Portlaoise and other towns in Leinster might have seemed like bargains compared with the stupendously high property prices in the capital. But the Dubliners who bought them must now fork out a rising portion of their disposable income to pay for petrol or diesel to keep cars on the road.

So, too, must those who bought sites and built houses in rural areas, remote from essential services such as shops and schools. Yet this equally unsustainable trend of suburbanising the countryside has been promoted by the Government’s so-called “Sustainable Rural Housing” guidelines, despite its inherent car-dependency.

It’s not just Dublin that has acquired a long-distance commuter belt. A similar pattern of development, perhaps quite not so far-flung, can be seen within the extended catchment areas of Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford, Sligo and other centres of employment; this accounts for the long tail-backs of traffic on their approach roads.

Because of the lack of clear planning policies to consolidate Ireland’s cities, towns and villages, motorways have become the sinews of sprawl, encouraging the creation of new “suburbs” that are more low-density and car-dependent than anything previously built. Cars are needed to get around, especially in the countryside. The number of cars went up by more than two-thirds from 939,022 in 1994 to 1,582,833 in 2004, reflecting the relative level of prosperity. Over the same period, the number of trucks and commercial vehicles nearly doubled from 135,809 to 268,082, as more and more goods are being transported by road to serve the booming economy.

The market share for rail freight has fallen from 5 per cent in the late 1980s to less than 1 per cent today. Indeed, the consultants who carried out the 2003 Strategic Rail Review warned that the business was “at risk of irreversible decline if the current policy vacuum continues”. Three years on, policy is as vacuous as ever.

Consultants Booz Allen Hamilton calculated that a rail freight meltdown would cost Irish society €63 million a year – €27 million in extra road maintenance and €36 million as a result of pollution and accidents. Yet the Government has no plans to introduce any scheme of incentives or allowances to encourage more use of the railways for freight.

Other EU member-states such as Britain, Denmark and Sweden are pressing companies to consider rail, or at least keep the option open. The reason is simple: their governments realise that the higher costs of energy, labour and environmental compliance will make it cheaper to rail freight across Europe rather than sending it by road.

Because of our reliance on roads for freight, as well as the explosion in car numbers and air travel, Ireland’s transport sector accounts for 40 per cent of total energy consumption. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from transport are increasing by up to 10 per cent per year, seriously jeopardising the prospect of meeting our Kyoto target.

Successive budgets have failed to tweak Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) to reflect energy consumption or CO2 emissions. VRT is crudely based on engine size, with cars of up to 1,400cc charged at 22.5 per cent of the retail price, 1,401-1,900cc at 25 per cent and 1,901cc-plus (which would include all SUVs) at 30 per cent. This regime has persisted despite a commitment in the National Climate Change Strategy, published in 2000, that there would be a “rebalancing” of VRT to favour more fuel-efficient cars. Other proposals included fuel economy labelling for all new cars and the possibility of raising fuel taxes still further to cut consumption. The only changes made were a 50 per cent reduction in VRT on hybrid electric cars (such as the Toyota Prius), introduced in 2000 and due to expire at the end of this year, and a similar level of relief on the purchase of “flexible fuel vehicles” running on bio-fuels, which was introduced last December for a trial two-year period.

The case for imposing a punitive level of VRT on SUVs is overwhelming. These diesel-draining monsters, which account for 8 per cent of new car sales in Ireland, are not only extremely inefficient in terms of fuel consumption, but also belch out much more CO2 than ordinary cars. A 50 per cent rate of VRT would be more than justified. Even without the proliferation of SUVs, transport’s reliance on oil will be the hardest to fix of any sector – at least until a new motor fuel becomes commercial viable and widely available. In the meantime, people will have to adapt to rising oil prices by driving cars less often, living closer to where they work and taking fewer trips by air.

© The Irish Times

Government stuck in the fossil age

Political leaders must face up to their duty and set more long-term objectives to guarantee sustainable energy and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, writes Frank McDonald

It is now 26 years since the late George Colley, then minister for energy, travelled to Jutland to see the first two experimental wind turbines built by the Danes. It’s what happened afterwards that’s so instructive: Denmark went on to become the world leader in wind energy while Ireland only recently started running to catch up.

By 2002, the Danish wind turbine industry was generating €3 billion a year in revenue, employing 20,000 people and supplying 18 per cent of Denmark’s electricity demand. And Ireland? Despite having the most favourable wind regime in Europe, by the end of 2002 we had a mere handful of wind farms supplying just 1 per cent of our demand.

The situation has improved since then. Electricity generated by wind power increased by 70 per cent last year (admittedly from a low base) and Ireland is now expected to exceed the EU’s 2010 target of generating 13.2 per cent of electricity demand from renewable sources – and wind is likely to account for 80 per cent of the total.

But 2010 is less than four years away, and it’s clear that much more long-term objectives need to be set sooner rather than later, if we are to guarantee sustainable energy in the future and, simultaneously, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. That will need a broad political consensus to underpin it, such as Denmark has achieved.

With less than a year to go before the next general election, the chances of all the Dáil parties following the Danish example are remote, as Green Party energy spokesman Eamon Ryan TD conceded. But he takes heart from previous Irish examples of the strong political consensus that emerged at times of crisis to “change tack”. Ryan cited the Lemass/Whitaker era, when Ireland changed from a closed economy to an open one, and the “fiscal rectitude” policies of the late 1980s, when we needed to ward off national bankruptcy. He is convinced that a similar cross-party approach is now needed if we are to move from fossil fuel dependency to energy self-sufficiency.

“The principal problem is the lack of a coherent, strategic national energy policy,” according to Noel O’Flynn, Fianna Fáil TD and chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee dealing with the issue. He pointed to the current National Development Plan (1999-2006), under which €6 billion was allocated for roads and just €145 million for energy infrastructure.

Eamon Ryan believes that long-term targets must be set, with 2050 as the horizon. “We should set out to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds – by then, we’re not going to have oil. Each step on the road to achieving that target is incremental, and we’ll be forced to ask ourselves why we’re building motorways everywhere.”

For example, within a corridor just 30 kilometres wide to the north of Dublin, we could end up with four motorways – the M1, the M2, the M3 and the proposed Outer Orbital ring road – a situation without precedent anywhere in Europe. Yet our greenhouse gas emissions are nearly double what they should be under the Kyoto Protocol target.

It was Noel Dempsey, as minister for the environment, who signed up in 1998 to cap the increase in Ireland’s emissions at 13 per cent above their 1990 levels in the period 2008-2012. Now, as the minister responsible for energy policy, he is about to produce a Green Paper on how we can substitute renewables for oil, gas and other fossil fuels.

The paper is also likely to deal with curbing energy waste by using it much more efficiently in power stations, homes and workplaces. Already, Dempsey has introduced grant-aid programmes for combined heat and power (CHP) plants and the use of wood pellets for home heating, as well as an excise relief scheme to promote bio-fuels.

Other innovative measures should include giving tax incentives or stamp duty relief to people buying new homes that are built to be more energy-efficient. Pending the adoption of stronger building regulations, this type of initiative would underpin efforts by local authorities such as Fingal County Council to specify higher standards.

The concept of “walkable communities”, well-served by public transport, also needs to be promoted as an alternative to sprawl; cutting car dependency makes sense from an energy perspective, but it would also help to reduce levels of obesity, heart disease and other serious health risks, as the Institute of Public Health said last week.

One issue that urgently needs to be revisited is the introduction of carbon taxes, something that the Government flunked in 2004. As the ESRI has said repeatedly, this wouldn’t involve an increase in the tax burden, merely a re-balancing in line with the “polluter pays” principle to encourage efficiency and cut carbon dioxide emissions.

The recent purchase of Lexus 450 hybrid cars for both Dempsey and Minister for the Environment Dick Roche was intended to “set an example”. But this was no more than a token gesture, given that both Mary McAleese and Bertie Ahern have just got new Mercedes S-class cars, which have a fuel efficiency of only 10 kilometres per litre. Clearly, the President and the Taoiseach believe that the comfort zone they inhabit is the natural order of things. Like most of us, cocooned by the smugness of living in the world’s second-wealthiest country, they haven’t spotted the elephant in the room – climate change, and the urgent need to start getting out of fossil fuels.

“It’s time we had a mature debate on need to face up to this,” says Dublin City Council’s chief planning officer, Dick Gleeson. “Because if we don’t begin managing the future to protect it for our kids, and we end up boxed into a corner in 20 years’ time because of our addiction to fossil fuels, then we’re going to be in serious trouble.”

It would also make sense economically. As Prof Kevin Leyden of West Virginia University has pointed out, even big business has discovered the green agenda. “Ireland benefited profoundly by embracing the last new wave of technology – computers – and would be well advised to note that green industry, products and processes are the next wave.”

Fundamentally, it is up to the Government to lead change in society and plan for a sustainable future free from reliance on increasingly expensive and climate-damaging fossil fuels. Unless Noel Dempsey’s forthcoming Green Paper on energy addresses the need for that transition to the post-oil era, it will be a waste of time.

© The Irish Times

The sky’s the limit

How your family holiday increases global warming.

Aviation is consuming more and more energy, as increasingly people take to the skies on cheap flights. But flying is the most detrimental form of travel in terms of aggravating global warming; on a per-capita basis, CO2 emissions from aircraft are almost seven times higher than emissions from trains and three times more than cars.

According to the website,, a single passenger travelling from Dublin to New York and back is responsible for 1.12 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Figures for other sample return flights from Dublin are: Tenerife, 0.88 tonnes; Dubai, 1.31 tonnes; Barbados, 1.42 tonnes; Cape Town, 2.20 tonnes; and Sydney, 3.79 tonnes. A family of four flying to Malaga for their summer holidays would rack up 2.24 tonnes of CO2 on the trip – enough to fill 5,000 wheelie bins, according to Dr Alan Drew, of the Irish Academy of Engineering. It must also be measured against the yardstick of emissions of three to four tonnes of CO2 by the average Irish family car for a whole year.

EU moves to impose a carbon tax on jet fuel – which, bizarrely, remains untaxed and outside the scope of the Kyoto Protocol – are still being resisted by airlines, as well as by the US, China and Russia, even though aviation is the fastest-growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and needs to be brought under control.

In Ireland, the Government also massively subsidises regional air services – in competition with bus and rail; a 2004 study by DKM Economic Consultants found that the average subsidy of €71 per passenger works out more than 10 times what the railways were getting and 152 times the level for buses.

© The Irish Times

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