“Risky and potentially costly gamble” for Ireland to rely on electric vehicles for emissions cuts

Ireland relying on electric vehicles for carbon emissions reductions is a “risky and potentially costly gamble”, the Joint Committee on Climate Action has just heard from a transport expert.

Dr Tadhg O’Mahony, independent and advisor at the Finland Futures Research Centre, University of  Turku, Finland, has told the Joint Committee on Climate Action, that “…if our severely congested, emissions intensive and economically costly transport system were a heart patient, it would be in cardiac failure. Our policy is providing an aspirin when the patient needs a triple heart bypass. Making progress will require vision and political leadership. Through the disruption of the pandemic, we now have a unique opportunity to reset and put ourselves on the right side of history.”

O’Mahony is the lead author of the transport chapter in the EPA’s 2020 State of the Environment Report.

He said: “An extensive rail system, existing at the formation of the state, was largely decommissioned over the last century. In more recent decades, we have delivered the perfect conditions for lock-in to a carbon intensive transport system. Through urban sprawl, our settlement pattern has increased travel distances.”

“At the same time, transport policy directed major investment to roads and motorways, and allowed walking, cycling and public transport to stagnate or decline in comparison. As our wealth grew, and increased demand for transport, decades of policy and private choices now funnel passengers in to cars, and freight on to trucks. A lock-in to an unsustainable system was inevitable,” he said.

O’Mahony said: “The 2019 Climate Action Plan, initiated by Deputy Bruton, was a laudable effort at progress. However, it has a problematic relationship with transport. Key decisions on spatial and transport planning had already been taken, in the National Planning Framework, and the National Development Plan. They included modest, shorter-term aims, for ‘compact growth,’ and for shifting journeys to sustainable modes.

He said as a result, it became clear that we would miss our 2030 emissions targets and, to plug this gap, the Climate Action Plan was “forced to further ramp up the goal for the number of electric vehicles, to a level that is difficult to achieve.”

O’Mahony said: “We now have a far deeper emissions reduction target, and it is a risky and potentially costly gamble to rely on electric vehicles to meet it. More importantly, this would make our 2050 emissions commitments harder to achieve, and deepen the many sustainability problems associated with our transport system.”

“Just some of these include: world-leading traffic congestion; damage to economic competitiveness; road traffic accidents; and the many impacts of particulate pollution on human health. The commitments of the Planning Framework and Development Plan must be seen as a floor not a ceiling of ambition. They are not consistent with the scale of the challenge we now face,” said O’Mahony.

He added: “In response, for deep emissions reductions and sustainability, the ‘avoid-shift-improve’ approach is recognised internationally as the standard, by the IPCC and others. This transformative approach  demands that policy move from short-term to long, from marginal tweaks to big vision, and from  improving technology to fundamentally transforming systems.”

Niall Cussen, the Planning Regulator, said: “It has been challenging to implement the 2010 Core Strategy reforms, which has required de-zoning in commuter locations and rezoning in urban areas. Today the Government’s National Planning Framework (NPF) commits to securing an average of 40% of all new homes on brownfield and infill development land, rising to 50% in cities and 30% in our towns and villages through local authority planning.”

“My Office, established in 2019, is statutorily obliged to enforce the NPF, a policy published in 2018. We are an early stage in our oversight of development plan preparation under the new approach introduced by the NPF. Today, 31 local authorities are re-writing their plans finishing by around end 2022. From our vantage point, we see a mixed picture of these emerging plans and indeed the wider functioning of our planning process and its economic underpinnings,” he said.

Cussen said: “Some local authorities work hard on climate action centred planning policy despite significant vested interest, political and sometimes public opposition where the link between certain developments and climate are not fully appreciated. Other local authorities point to brownfield and higher density development being much less economic compared to lower density greenfield development. They see following traditional patterns of development essential in meeting housing supply pressures.”

He added: “Communities too, often want to retain familiar 19th century skylines as our cities and towns address 21st century challenges including an extra 1 million people by 2040. Building upwards and making better use of underutilised urban land, providing attractive, affordable urban housing and connected communities are some antidotes to our historical business-as-usual outwards pattern of energy intensive urban sprawl.”

Andrew Murphy, an aviation expert at the EU-level NGO Transport & Environment, said “This lack of regulation does the sector no favours, and Ireland’s role at European level in resisting such regulation is short sighted in the extreme. As an Irish citizen living overseas, I am acutely aware of the role aviation plays in connecting Ireland. Those who talk up the strategic importance of aviation to Ireland should be equally vocal in ensuring the sector cuts its emissions. With effort, and in time, we can develop solutions for aviation too.”

On electric vehicles he said: “I consider myself one of the strongest proponents of the direct electrification of the transport system, and believe we are far from realising its full potential, due in part to some persisting myths regarding battery electrification. Nevertheless, I have no intention of owning an electric vehicle, because I have no intention of owning a private vehicle of any type. I live in a major city, with ample access to cheap public transport, and increasing priority given the walking and cycling.”

“This gets to the key issue of decarbonising transport. Stricter regulations and developments in technology mean we can, for most modes, offer people access to low-carbon mobility. However the public should always be given a choice, and no one should be forced into a 20th century model of private car ownership which continues to have substantial financial, social and economic negative consequences,” said Murphy.

Murphy added: “A one-far-one switch between internal combustion engines and EVs would be a missed opportunity. It would undermine the effectiveness of public transport investments, place continued financial pressure on families, and would risk putting Irish cities further out of step with their European counterparts.”

I am editor of IrishCycle.com and have reported on and commented on cycling in Ireland for over a decade. My background is in journalism -- I have a BA in Journalism from DCU and HDip in Print Journalism from BCFE. I wrote about cycling for national newspapers, and then started CyclingInDublin.com for overflow stories. Later the website was re-branded to reflect a more national focus.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for the link.

  2. 2 different Tadhg O’Mahony’s I think, one in EPA in Cork and one in Finland.

  3. @Linda the details in the article are correct, the Tadhg O’Mahony mention in the article was both the lead author of the EPA report mentioned, and also associated with the University of Turku, Finland.

  4. the sad thing here is that around half of the closed rail lines could be reopened if the money was made available the other half have mostly been built on but with great planning a lot of those old rural lines were wide enough to reinstall a track and run a separate cycle lane and footpath beside them linking rural towns better especially

  5. thanks Cian for the clarification.

    Regards,
    Linda

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