• Jim Scheer
  • 7 min read

The National Energy Summit, a day with significant potential, but also with significant warning signs of missteps on our road to net-zero.

It’s time to be unreasonable on climate action

I recently took part in the National Energy Summit, attended by a range of energy sector academics, experts, businesspeople and stakeholders. The theme was energy supply, storage and security.

I was geared up and ready for the discussions, focussed on the urgency of the topic, exacerbated by the recent news that a 1.5 degrees global temperature increase may happen even sooner than the most pessimistic forecasts. Here was a room of key actors and decision makers with the opportunity to seriously consider the challenges of turning around Ireland’s emissions trend that is heading in the wrong direction. This was a day with significant potential - but also with significant warning signs of missteps on our road to net-zero. 

Digging the hole deeper

What struck me about the some of the promotional displays and discussions was that some of the decarbonisation pathways and measures being proposed actually have significant potential to hamper the urgent reductions we require. Indeed, some of the actions being advocated, by some of the largest energy sector actors, run entirely counter to those needed to address the climate and energy crises.

One statistic enthusiastically highlighted that Ireland added over 8,000 new homes and businesses to the gas grid in 2020.  New connections from 2017 to 2020 totalled over 40,000, leading to increased gas demand of over 3,100 GWh. These connections will cause over nine million tonnes of CO2 over the next 15 years, unless those customers spend money to improve their efficiency. That’s over 40,000 more connections for us and future generations to undo, at significant cost to these same consumers to put them on the net-zero emission pathway.

There are complexities to the argument. But ultimately, nationally, we appear to be accepting that connecting new consumers to fossil gas is better in terms of overall emissions. The idea being that we will eventually decarbonise the gas that is supplying these homes and businesses. So, let’s consider for a moment how that is progressing. Right now, the gas we use is 99.9% fossil fuel. The 0.01% that is renewable comes from an injection point in Cush, County Kildare. As part of SEAI’s recently published National Heat Study, we conducted a deep analysis of the potential for increasing the renewable gas component via biomethane. Our best-case estimate is that 11% of gas could be renewable by 2030. But even that will require a lot of actions in the agriculture sector, and adherence to strict sustainability criteria.

The arguments for these new connections ignore a host of issues and alternatives: the fossil fuel lock in, the time delay to any meaningful contribution to renewable gas, the cumulative emissions to our atmosphere in the meantime, and future costs to these consumers to make them climate and net-zero emissions compatible. Most importantly, much better technological alternatives exist that could deliver more rapid emissions reductions, consistent with a net-zero pathway, that also meet our legally binding carbon budgets.  

We can’t afford to build hopes, and comfort levels, on solutions that distract us from the ultimate goal, or kick the proverbial can down the road. Our choices must be based on facts, robust analysis and readiness to act at pace.

SEAI's National Heat Study

SEAI’s National Heat Study explored these very pathways. The study highlights that the fastest decarbonisation pathways for heating our homes and buildings is through moving gas and oil consumers to a combination of district heating in towns and cities, and electric heat pumps in areas where district heating might not be viable. Importantly, the district heating systems would use renewable and waste heat streams while the heat pumps are powered by electricity that is already almost 40% renewable, and by 2030 should be as much as 80% renewable. The clincher - these technologies are available now. Whilst not without their deployment challenges, pace of delivering being one, our analysis suggests they offer the only credible pathway to give us a chance of keeping within both our carbon budgets, and the upcoming sectoral emissions ceilings. Wait for renewable gas for heating – best estimate is mid 2030’s when offshore wind deployment enables the production of green hydrogen - and we are guaranteed to blow our carbon budgets. Our modelling illustrates that hydrogen will have an essential role in net-zero, but by focussing it on decarbonising electricity generation and large industry, not in homes and buildings. Any pathway that suggests it does must be backed up by credible analysis, that proves compatibility with our overall mission. If they don’t make the budget, we can’t pursue them.

We can’t afford to build hopes, and comfort levels, on solutions that distract us from the ultimate goal, or kick the proverbial can down the road. Our choices must be based on facts, robust analysis and readiness to act at pace.

Being reasonable? It’s not working

As adults, we have become excellent at reasoning our actions. From EU Directives down to our own personal decision-making frameworks, we apply a lot of reasons and rationales for doing what we do. ‘We need to keep the lights on’; ‘We need to support jobs in this sector or that’; ‘We need to grow the economy’. We convince ourselves that there is only one way to achieve this. We ignore solutions because they are uncomfortable even if they make sense in the longer term. But when it comes to limiting global warming to safe levels, time is not on our side. And the truth is, we can keep the lights on and develop jobs without fossil fuels having to be at the core of everything. If in pursuing our goals based on a long list of reasons, we end up with a planet that is too warm to sustain us, what have we gained? If, on the other hand, we can keep planetary warming to a liveable level and provide climate justice for those worst and disproportionately affected countries and people, great. I am all up for that. Ideas welcome and needed. But when our children ask in years to come, as they are now, why we were adding more fossil fuel use when we knew there were better alternatives, how can we answer?

Instead of being held back by all of our reasons for not dropping fossil fuels faster, we need to embrace the core reason for acting, namely survival. We’ve done it before. The response to the recent health crisis brought many of us together for a common purpose. It’s time to stop lying to ourselves about what is reasonable. Is it unreasonable to want the right solution? Is it unreasonable to recognise that adding fossil fuels just costs us more money and lost time in the long run? Is it unreasonable to want to offer homeowners the chance of a better more reliable, sustainable and economically advantageous source of heating? Is it unreasonable to care about surviving? If so, then I guess I am unreasonable. But let’s be honest, in that case, true progress will only be made by the unreasonable man or woman.   

Getting real

Right now, we are adding fossil fuel demand in Ireland in the form of new and existing buildings being connected to the gas grid, huge sales of SUVs, proliferation of appliances, bigger homes, and through increased unsustainable economic output in sectors fuelled by fossil fuels, among other actions we take. If left unchecked, these additions will make it impossible for us to climb out of the hole we have dug.

The good news is that in Ireland we now have one of the strongest set of targets and ambitions established in law. Reducing emission by 51% by 2030, then to net zero by 2050, and complying with soon to be determined sectoral emissions ceilings along the way is no easy task. We know the technologies and behaviours we need to deploy to get there. The current Government is showing significant agility and determination in setting energy and climate policy at a pace not before seen. In my 16 years at SEAI, I have not been as busy, nor seen colleagues across all Government Departments as focussed or activated around this massive challenge. This work will certainly facilitate a lot more of industry, business and household consumers – all of us – to support each other as we eliminate fossil fuels. But for that to happen – it’s time to be unreasonable on climate action.

Jim Scheer | Head of Data and Insights

Jim has over 20 years’ experience working in the field of policy analysis and development related to environmental issues. He joined SEAI in 2007 and is currently Head of Department (Data and Insights) responsible for energy statistics, modelling, behavioural economics and finance at SEAI. He holds a Professional Diploma in Advanced Management Performance (Smurfit Business School), MSc. Economic Policy Studies (Trinity College Dublin), BSc. Environmental Science (Flinders University, South Australia). Jim is passionate about getting people connected to the need for climate action now.