I thank the Cathaoirleach and the members of the committee for the opportunity to attend today's committee hearing on the implications and opportunities in decarbonising Ireland’s transport network. Transport & Environment, T&E, is a Brussels-based European-level NGO, advocating a more sustainable transport network at European and national level. T&E’s vision is a zero-emission mobility system that is affordable and has minimal impacts on our health, climate and environment. I have been with T&E for almost seven years, focusing largely on the aviation sector. A graduate of NUI Galway, I have been living in Brussels for ten years, moving there initially to work for the European Commission’s transport directorate.
Ireland is not alone in witnessing a growth in transport emissions, with this sector now the largest source of emissions across Europe. However, the absolute growth in emissions from Ireland’s transport sector - an increase of 136% since 1990 - is stark compared to an EU average increase of 20%.
It would be tempting to ascribe such exceptional growth to Ireland’s increase in GDP and population over that period. However, this would ignore the role that policy decisions at all levels have played. After all, it is Ireland’s choice where we put this population growth and how we invested this wealth.
Nearly all aspects of the Avoid, Shift, Improve approach are impacted, directly or indirectly, by European legislation. How this legislation is amended in the coming years will be crucial to achieving substantial emission reductions in the transport sector.
Europe's effort sharing regulation incentivises avoid and shift through target setting for parts of the economy, including transport. That regulation is, however, under threat. Vehicle regulations set targets for large and small vehicles, and have been decisive in driving the uptake of both low emission and high emissions vehicles. The environmental and climate impact of fuels is regulated through the fuel quality and renewable energy directives, shaping the development of biofuels policy in Europe. Aviation and shipping have to date received only passing interest from European regulators. That has led to damaging consequences for these sectors' ability to decarbonise.
In addition to these regulations, the EU also plays an important role in financing transport infrastructure. For example, the EIB has in the past lent heavily to carbon intensive projects, especially airports and roads, a position which is evolving as the bank aligns its lending with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
European legislation is now starting to pay dividends where, for example, the reforms to car standards introduced in the wake of VW’s "dieselgate" scandal are driving the deployment of zero-emission vehicles. The bulk of European legislation is now under review under Europe’s Green Deal which will touch on issues in respect of electric vehicles, batteries and biofuels.
The European Commission’s Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy – Putting European Transport on Track for the Future, published last December, will guide European policy in this area. It envisages smart and climate neutral cities across Europe, delivered through a range of measures, including shared mobility and increased cycling and walking infrastructure. There is no one single fix to eliminating emissions from transport.
Policy developments are mutually reinforced by technological developments.
Improvements in battery technology, with regard to both range and price, have repeatedly exceeded expectations. The price of batteries has fallen 85% in a decade and they can now go further and charge faster. I consider myself one of the strongest proponents of the direct electrification of the transport system via electric vehicles. We are far from realising the full potential of this area, 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 where an increasing priority is given to walking and cycling.
This gets us 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 negative financial, social and economic consequences. A one-for-one switch between internal combustion engines and electric vehicles 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.
Our transport policy is linked with our industrial and economic policy. The right choices in decarbonising our transport sector can have enormous benefits for our economy, creating employment opportunities across the island. With 97% of our transport energy demand met by imported fossil fuels in 2017, we have an opportunity to switch to developing our own fuels in Ireland, including fuels for the shipping and aviation sectors, through presently untapped offshore renewable energy potential.
I said “most modes” have an immediate pathway to decarbonisation. A major exception is aviation which, before Covid, was the fastest growing source of emissions in Europe. That is not by accident. Our failure to effectively regulate aviation emissions, and instead to subsidise their growth, has created this situation. This lack of regulation has consequences. Measures put in place to decarbonise other sectors, including measures relating to cars, buildings and electricity, are starting to pay dividends. Aviation is increasingly isolated as a high emitter of carbon, a problem which will return to threaten the sector post Covid. This lack of regulation does the sector no favours and Ireland’s role in resisting such regulation at European level 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. I look forward to taking members' questions.