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Transport at a crossroads in Ireland: Are we on track to meet net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?

Public Affairs
Transport at a crossroads in Ireland: Are we on track to meet net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050?
motorbike at Dublin bridge

By Roisin O’Neill, Senior Account Executive, Public Policy Dublin

Ireland‘s population is expected to rise to almost 5.7 million people by 2040. A 12% increase in population makes it even more crucial that Ireland’s public transport infrastructure is sustainable, accessible and fit for purpose. Strong governance and commitment to transport decarbonisation will be required to ensure the necessary policy supports, investment and infrastructure are delivered to improve services and meet population demand. To borrow words from journalist Finn McRedmond in her recent Irish Times column: “The best time for radical and sweeping investments to a country’s infrastructure was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now”.

In Ireland, transport accounts for approximately 18% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, with road transport making up 94% of those emissions. The Climate Act passed in 2021 was historic. For the first time, it committed Ireland to a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; and a reduction of 51% by 2030 relative to a baseline of 2018 emissions. The 2030 sectoral target for transport emissions reduction is set at 42-50%.

State of play of Ireland’s sustainable transport infrastructure

Many lament the state of Irish public transport, pointing to the long-promised and as-yet undelivered MetroLink to connect Dublin airport to the city centre; the lack of national rail lines and integrated services; as well as the lack of night-time services in cities, which has been exacerbated by post-Covid taxi supply issues. Active travel and public transport campaigner, Kevin Cannon, takes a more optimistic view. He argues that we are on a trajectory of improvement and that establishing the National Transport Authority (NTA) in 2009 has given Ireland a relatively centralised body to plan and implement long-term transport strategies, beyond the remit of any one government.

While you could be forgiven for struggling to keep track of the different policies, action plans and transport stakeholders at the regional and national levels, it is clear that the NTA and the Department of Transport are making great strides to bring Ireland’s transport network up to a higher standard while keeping sustainability front and centre. The National Sustainable Mobility Policy and Action Plan, published this year, sets out a clear framework to 2030 for active travel and public transport in line with Ireland’s emissions reductions targets. It also places an emphasis on accessibility and universal design principles to create equitable access to services, which is an essential component of any transport system.

The role of electric vehicles in Irish transport

Private car use is the dominant mode of transport in Ireland, accounting for about 54% of road transport emissions in 2020. To realistically reduce this number, there is a dual task of improving public transport offerings and encouraging the switch to electric vehicles (EVs). The Climate Action Plan sets an ambitious target of almost one million EVs on Irish roads by 2030 and the National Sustainable Mobility Policy wants to see a 10% reduction in kilometres driven by fossil fuelled cars by 2030. A recent analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Office found that some form of Government support for electric vehicles may be required until at least 2025 until the total cost of ownership becomes more competitive in comparison to internal combustion engine vehicles. Affordability remains a key barrier to EV ownership and just 1.65% of Ireland’s fleet is hybrid or electric.

Targeting fleets (buses, taxis, etc.) for electrification and reducing public transport costs has been a sensible and clever strategic way to actively decarbonise Ireland’s transport and help encourage a modal shift back to public transport in a “post-Covid” environment where people are facing steep hikes in the cost of living. Following a 20% fare reduction across public transport in May this year, transport passenger journeys are at their highest level since March 2020. While the numbers have yet to return to pre-pandemic levels, factors such as a higher level of hybrid and remote working could be affecting overall levels of public transport use. The bottom line is, to meet the National Sustainable Mobility Policy target to deliver at least 500,000 additional daily active travel and public transport journeys by 2030, public transport must be an attractive and affordable commuting option.

Modal shift and public buy-in

As the phrase goes, “if you build it, they will come”. Continued Government investment in the likes of remote working hubs, cycle lanes and electric vehicle charging infrastructure will be essential to lessen dependence on the private car and encourage long-term mass modal shift to more sustainable transport and active travel modes. For example, the passage of the Road Traffic and Roads Bill will enable the introduction of shared e-scooter schemes for the first time on Irish roads, currently anticipated in 2023. You might even say the public is ahead of the government in terms of e-scooter buy-in, and it will be for the legislators and local authorities to catch up with demand.

Clear communication and investment in smart technology, such as Mobility as a Service, or MaaS, can go a long way to improving accessibility and making public transport easier to use across multiple modes. The Leap Card is an older but good example of how the public is ready and willing to buy into smart solutions. Currently if you are trying to get around the country, there are multiple companies, websites, brands and apps to navigate. This is undergoing a process of consolidation under Transport for Ireland (TFI), the NTA’s public-facing brand for all public transport.

Conclusion: the time has come for Ireland’s transport to tackle its sustainability targets

Transport is an essential part of daily life, and investment in high-quality infrastructure should not be considered an afterthought. Thankfully, it appears we are heading away from the short-termism that dominated transport planning in Ireland for decades.

Both legacy and new Government policies around sustainable transport models at national and local levels are being directed towards helping Ireland meet its 2050 net-zero greenhouse gas emissions target. It is still uncertain whether the level of urgency required to meet its transport sector targets has been reached. What is clear, however, is that numerous policy and market trends have reached a pivotal crossroads in supporting Ireland’s climate ambitions.

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