Five Degrees of Change

Margie McCarthy: We need to grasp the nettle on fossil fuel subsidies

The head of research and policy insights at the SEAI explains the policy and personal changes she would make for a greener world

Margie McCarthy, director of research and policy insights at SEAI. Picture: Fergal Phillips

Margie McCarthy understands the importance of good science communications more than most people.

A chartered engineer who served as head of education and public engagement for Science Foundation Ireland, McCarthy is now director of research and policy insights at the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, (SEAI) where she is trying to move the dial on the most complex scientific issue of all: climate change.

As part of Five Degrees of Change, the Business Post’s energy and environment podcast sponsored by PwC, McCarthy gave us her three policy changes and two personal changes for a greener world.

POLICY: Visualise Ireland in 2050 to create a movement

While 2050 is spoken about a lot as the date by which the world needs to reach net-zero carbon emissions, McCarthy wants it to represent something different.

“There are lots of positives that could come from some of the changes we are talking about, and we are not really getting to shine a light on them,” she said.

Whether it is more liveable cities with greener public spaces, or better public transport, McCarthy thinks the benefits of climate action need to be better sold to the public.

“The important things... like the amazing air quality benefits we could have, like slowing down a bit in our lives, like having greener cities rather than these big grey cities we currently have,” she said.

“These are the real positive outcomes of some of the difficult changes we will have to make, like getting out of our cars.”

To create that vision, McCarthy said expert working groups need to contribute their vision, and then bring those together and go to the public through consultations and a citizens’ assembly.

“It is as much about the conversation and the compromises along the way, “ she said.

PERSONAL: No new dresses in 2024

Fast fashion has a whole range of environmental impacts. It accounts for about 10 per cent of global emissions, results in a huge amount of landfill waste and ocean plastic fibre pollution, and impacts on often poor communities from factories that use and dump dyes into waterways.

“There are certain things I buy that last me forever, like shoes or a coat. But dresses are one of those things that just make me feel good so I want to go out and get a new one even though my wardrobe is bursting,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy found that the pandemic and working from home meant she had shifted her consumer habits to online purchasing.

“We got to the stage as a family where there seemed to be boxes arriving at our door every second day. We hadn’t really moved away from that by the end of 2023,” she said.

By now trying to limit her purchases, McCarthy said she is becoming more aware of her buying habits more generally.

“That cascades across my whole life then, from clothes to food waste,” she said.

POLICY: Accelerate massive scale out of district heating

While still a relatively unknown concept in Ireland, district heating has been a feature of many European countries for many years.

In simple terms, it is the use of a central heating source to deliver heated water to multiple buildings through insulated pipes. It is a more efficient way of delivering heat, meaning it uses less energy to reach the same ends. But it is also possible for the central sources to either be from excess waste heat from the likes of data centres, or decarbonised heat sources like biomass boilers.

Following years of stagnation, McCarthy wants to see district heating finally take off in Ireland.

“Heat has been the forgotten element of the energy movement,” she said.

In a 2022 study produced by the SEAI, district heating was shown to be a key technology to meet our climate targets.

“It identified that district heating could meet up to 50 per cent of our building heat needs, which is huge potential. That wasn’t only the big cities, but larger scale towns too,” she said.

“What the heat study did showed the potential at a national level and that we are actually a viable market for district heating similar to our Scandinavian and Nordic neighbours that have raced ahead of us.”

Plans for legislation around district heating are being formulated this year, and McCarthy hopes more projects like the pilots in Tallaght and Poolbeg in Dublin will be rolled out shortly.

PERSONAL: Tune in to opposing opinions but stay optimistic

McCarthy finds it difficult to deal with the opposition to climate action.

Ranging from out right climate change denialism, to disagreements over which technologies should be used, McCarthy has had to learn to listen without becoming frustrated.

“One of the things I would say is don’t go into a room expecting people to move to your opinion, make sure you listen,” she said.

“Last year conversations on social media turned so ugly, and many advocates who we so badly need to speak out were being dragged down. That really got to me and I decided to turn off a lot of those channels. But then you are in an echo chamber…That is not helpful when you are trying to instigate change.”

McCarthy thinks that some of the pushback on climate action is simply a symptom of its success.

“The really hard opposition is quite small. We give a lot of volume to a small section of our society, national attitude surveys show the vast majority of people have bought into this and are supportive,” she said.

POLICY: Disentangle fossil fuel subsidies

Ireland subsidises fossil fuels to the tune of €2.9 billion a year and McCarthy said that has to be addressed.

“Some of them are direct like fuel allowances, and others are taxes foregone or incentives,” she said.

“We have had the G20 and other forums talking about these for a long time but actually we have seen them increase.”

Ireland is ahead in how it reports fossil fuel subsidies, with the department of finance and the department of public expenditure both publishing fossil fuel subsidies and the even wider category of ‘climate harmful spending’.

But as of yet there is no concerted plan to unwind them. The European Commission recently ordered the government to produce a roadmap for phasing out the subsidies.

While McCarthy would support any calls to unwind fossil fuel subsides, she also warned that the government would have to move carefully.

“There as some subsidies that remove hardship for people. That is really important. We all experienced in 2022 and 2023 the Ukraine war energy price surges, and we all received allowances of some sort towards our energy bills,” she said.

“For us to achieve what we have to achieve, we have to move away from fossil fuels.”

McCarthy said the “dearth” of a pathway to remove the subsidies would have to be rectified if our climate goals were to be reached.

“We haven’t yet grasped the nettle,” she said.