Saturday November 28, 2020

Comment: Tackling climate change requires innovative engineering solutions

Engineers have a critical role to play in Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon energy model and now is the opportune time to invest in public infrastructure to drive the green recovery

29th October, 2020
Renewable energy sources such as wind farms will play an important role in Ireland meeting its climate goals

As Ireland grapples with the immediate threats of the Covid-19 pandemic and a possible Brexit, it would be easy for climate change to be pushed down the agenda.

The reality, however, is that we are facing a climate breakdown and biodiversity collapse like nothing previously seen in human history. As Michael D Higgins so precisely put it last week at the Engineers Ireland National Conference, it is the most pressing existential crisis facing us all.

As engineers, it is our job to do come up with solutions that can help Ireland play its part more effectively as part of both the European Green Deal and the drive to make Ireland and Europe zero-carbon by 2050.

There is no doubt that the recently-published Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2020 is a significant signposting in Ireland’s roadmap in this respect. But clear and substantive actions are now needed to support the building of a sustainable, robust economy, and an innovative and secure energy transition is absolutely critical to this.

As outlined in our State of Ireland 2020 report, which is an annual engineering assessment of the condition of Ireland’s infrastructure, now is the opportune time to invest in public infrastructure to drive the green recovery and create badly-needed jobs in the wake of Covid-19.

The integration of our energy system is a pivotal element of building a sustainable economy. The Green New Deal in the programme for government is a laudable framework, but it requires specific projects and technological solutions to be implemented to support an efficient and secure energy transition.

Specifically, the government must urgently identify a seaport to support offshore wind development as part of achieving 70 per cent renewable electricity by 2030. Delivering the infrastructure needed to meet this goal by 2030 will create about 6,000 direct jobs in Ireland and an additional 9,000 indirect jobs, according to the Irish Wind Energy Association.

We also need to develop and implement a radical national retrofit strategy, providing absolute clarity and a roadmap for retrofitting over the next 20 years. Moreover, there is a strong need for a coherent hydrogen strategy to develop it as a renewable energy source.

Increasing the resilience of Ireland’s gas network, and the potential of carbon capture and storage technology as part of that, is something Brendan Murphy, commercial and regulatory director at Ervia, also articulated very clearly at our national conference.

None of this can be done overnight, and it is for this reason that our government, key agencies and sectoral regulatory authorities need to be aligned in terms of policy development to oversee Ireland’s transition to a low-carbon energy model.

This must be done by integrating renewables with reliable energy sources in the short to medium-term to foster security of energy supply, economic progress and social wellbeing.

Through technical ingenuity and innovation, engineers are critical to this secure and effective transition. Even in the severest economic conditions, targeted investment in infrastructure strengthens growth through job creation, efficiency, productivity and competitiveness.

In the wake of the pandemic and with a no-deal Brexit looming, it is even more important now to front-load investment in green infrastructure that can boost enduring job creation and economic activity, thereby contributing to long-term sustainable, inclusive growth for Ireland.

Engineers Ireland very much welcomes the increased investment in infrastructure to €10.1 billion announced in Budget 2021. Ireland’s capital spending across the lifetime of the National Development Plan, which the government has said is now to be reviewed, must be ambitious and focused on decarbonisation and balanced regional development.

Engineers have a critical role to play in ensuring that everyone in Ireland and the world has access to clean water, sanitation and reliable energy. Safeguarding our country from climate change’s adverse impacts, which are already manifesting in extreme weather conditions and excessive flooding, is a call to action for engineers of all ages to use their ingenuity and problem-solving abilities to tackle the great challenge of our time.

As eloquently conveyed by President Higgins, engineers have a responsibility as a profession to take action resolutely going forward on the issue of climate change. An effective energy transition is an extremely important element of this.

Engineers Ireland and its members, and the industries they represent, stand ready to respond to this need for new and innovative engineering solutions that can address climate breakdown and help build a more resilient society.

Maurice Buckley is president of Engineers Ireland

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