Part of the Government’s strategy to curb harmful emissions by 51% between 2022 and 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050 involves an ambitious afforestation programme which would see planting of 8000 hectares (nearly 20,000 acres) this year. That would entail planting 154 hectares (380 acres) of new forestry every week this year.
Just how ambitious this policy is can be judged by the actual rate of planting in 2023. It appears that we are currently reaching only 8% of our weekly planting target, equivalent to 11 hectares or the area of four average-sized cultivated fields per week. This does not augur well for any hope of reaching the Government target.
The chaotic administrative mess relating to the licensing of tree planting is only one part of the problem; the Government thinks that landowners are holding back on planting in the expectation of improved subsidies which may become available once the issue of state aid approval is obtained from the EU.
The problem with stating ambitious targets is that credibility is squandered and lost if it becomes obvious at an early stage that they have become wholly unrealistic. That problem in relation to climate change strategy is by no means confined to forestry.
We have clear signs already that the targets for offshore wind generation are falling victim to the same problems of governmental delivery. Offshore wind generating industry sources have recently signalled that the targets for their industry are becoming wholly unrealistic for 2030 as well.
For some reason, the Government decided to establish a two-stage process for licensing offshore applications and approvals. Two wholly separate agencies were planned. MARA is the agency for approving the licensing of offshore wind generation infrastructure while An Bord Pleanála has the second-stage role of giving final planning permission for the successful applications for licenses.
One might have thought that a single authorisation process was desirable. But no. We have too separate agencies dealing with one state function. The planning board has no existing expertise in this area; MARA is assembling its expertise and hopes to receive and process its first applications including a public consultation process in the coming months. The easier east and south coast sites will be first in the queue.
We shouldn’t hold our breath awaiting the first offshore wind generating infrastructure coming into operation off the Atlantic coast any time soon. It is difficult to see such development coming on stream in the next five or seven years. We have not yet built or planned the port infrastructure required for servicing offshore deep-sea wind generating capacity. Heady talk about Ireland becoming an exporter of wind-generated energy is just that – talk – at this stage.
Which is not to say that we should eschew vision in our transformation into a low carbon economy or society. Targets are necessary; executions is everything if we are to draw a healthy distinction between visionaries and achievers.
We have to face up to a few realities here. Ireland’s population is expanding rapidly. We need to develop our infrastructure to match our population growth. Have we population targets? Or is population growth an unquantifiable residual factor in our calculations? I was amused by the recent controversy about increasing the size of Dáil membership. If the UK adopted the Irish TD/population ratio, the House of Commons would have over 2,250 MPs.
Likewise, our expanding population needs greater energy production – especially if we are moving over to all-electric power in transport, home heating, data centres etc. Is someone doing the sums? I hope it is not the same set of number-crunchers who calculated our forestry strategy.
If we don’t have a handle on future immigration trends, how can we plan for home-building? This week’s grim news that the site of Electric Picnic at Stradbally is to be retained for accommodating Ukrainian refugees in bell tents is a graphic reminder of the need to marry planning to execution; it isn’t only a matter of people being forced to live at home with their parents in their late twenties.
We need to look around a few corners. How can it make sense for the Office of the Planning Regulator to require de-zoning of land for residential purposes in Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown and elsewhere when housing is in such supply deficit? We need a revolution in our law of planning and development to dismantle the legal and administrative obstacle course so well described by John FitzGerald in his article here last Friday.
By all means, set targets for all sorts of areas of public policy including emissions controls. But keep your feet firmly on the ground as regards our capacity to deliver on and accomplish those targets. Politics may be the art of the possible; good politics is the art of discerning and delivering the probable.