Climate Action and Rural Dwellers- What’s happening?

There is no significant body of work (internationally or nationally) on climate change and emissions issues for rural areas and yet there are important differences in energy use patterns and emissions (read more discussion on this here). This post gives a brief overview of some of the issues for rural dwellers addressed in the Climate Action Plan.

The majority (65%) of the Western Region population (and a significant proportion of the national population (37%)) lives in rural areas[1]. The focus of much WDC policy analysis is on the needs of, and opportunities for, rural areas in the Western Region in particular in relation to issues which may not have been considered in detail in policy making. Rural areas are places of employment and make an important contribution to the economy.  Rural development (see for example Action Plan for Rural Development) is a government policy (see for example the National Policy Objective 15 National Planning Framework).

At the same time climate change mitigation is a key government priority, and it is essential that the needs, impacts, options and opportunities for rural dwellers (the term ‘rural dwellers’ is used here as the focus here is on people living in rural areas rather than agriculture) are given consideration and actions developed to focus on particular issues for them.

It is recognised (see here) that increasing carbon taxes particularly affect rural areas while the options for rural dwellers to change their behaviour are limited.   Rural dwellers have different energy needs and often have reduced or more costly choices than their urban equivalents. Rural individuals are thought to have a larger carbon footprint than their urban counterparts (see more discussion here) and need greater access to cleaner energy choices. At the same time the sources of clean energy for all citizens are largely rural based.

It is therefore important that we understand the situation for rural areas including the issues that must be the focus of change, the long term options, the opportunities and challenges and the scale and scope of the actions required to reduce rural dwellers emissions and increase the use of renewable energy in rural areas.

Actions for Rural Dwellers in Climate plan

 There are few actions in the Climate Plan which are specifically focused on rural dwellers although many of the actions are certainly relevant.  I briefly outline the specific actions below and then consider some of the other actions which will have particular implications for rural people.

 

Funds

Both the urban (URDP) and rural (RRDP) regeneration and development funds, announced as part of Project Ireland 2040, are awarded on a competitive bid basis.  These are now to include specific evaluation criteria in relation to potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Action 15).  It is not yet clear what these criteria will be but it should mean that they further enable investments which have a specific mitigation or adaptation focus to be funded, and that projects not directly related to climate action are at least climate friendly.

 

Transport

There is a specific focus on the need to address rural issues under the transport heading (e.g. Action 94 to review public and sustainable transport policy and publish a public consultation on public/sustainable transport policy, including rural transport).  This does recognise that rural needs may be different, while Action 100 addresses the need for a vision for low carbon rural transport and commits to “Develop a new rural transport strategy”

This new rural transport strategy is to include:

  • a comprehensive assessment of rural travel demand, and methodologies for determining same
  • set a target for modal shift and emissions reductions for 2021-2025
  • develop proposals for an integrated public transport network
  • develop a pilot scheme for a city and its regional hinterland to develop a best practice model pilot a car sharing initiative such as a vehicle bank in rural Towns

 

Electricity/Electrification

The changes which may be needed in domestic electricity connections and their capacity with the move to increased electrification is to be considered under Action 174 involves the introduction, as required, of new urban and rural domestic connection design standards and infrastructure sizing and design standards to reflect the demand of domestic scale low-carbon technologies

 

Broader Policy with implications for Climate Actions

Action 179 commits to ‘Undertake public consultation to inform future Rural Development Strategy’.  This is a broad commitment but it is to be hoped that climate action and the move to a low carbon economy will be inherent in the new rural strategy, with both specific actions addressing the climate agenda and broader actions aligned with the move to a low carbon rural economy.

In addition the Western Development Commission (WDC) under Action 160 is undertaking a study of the transition to a low carbon rural Western Region.  This is discussed in more detail below.

 

Other Actions relevant to rural dwellers

There are of course other actions with the potential to be significant for rural dwellers.  For example Action 150, which focuses on supporting the development of Local Authority climate action leadership and capabilities, should bring climate action to a more local level in terms of planning, projects (such as Smart Green Mohill) and providing leadership.  Local Authorities will also be working closely with the Climate Action Regional Offices (CAROs).  Local authorities, especially those with significant rural populations have a potentially very significant role to play in driving Climate Action in rural areas.

A number of other key actions in the Climate Action Plan 2019 not specifically relating rural dwellers are outlined briefly below, to highlight the wide ranging impacts and actions necessary for climate change mitigation with a focus on the Built Environment, Transport and Electricity.

 

The Built Environment (Energy Efficiency and Heat)

The built environment accounts for more than 12% of Irelands GHG emissions, and the energy used in buildings accounts for more than a third of our energy demand[2]. so increasing efficiency in the built environment and changing the way we heat our buildings are both significant climate  actions.

Increasing energy efficiency is covered in detail in the Climate Action Plan with a focus on the energy standards for new build, energy efficiency rating in homes and other buildings, regulation (Action 60 and 61 on oil and gas boilers) and retrofitting to improve energy efficiency  (see for example Actions 43-51).  Meeting the high-level target to complete half a million retrofits is a challenge but it should have important  benefits in rural areas, both in terms of improving energy efficiency and comfort and heat for many rural dwellers, as well as in the potential for up skilling and employment throughout the country.  The issues of financing and cost have yet to be addressed in detail.

The Support Scheme for Renewable Heat (SSRH- Action 69) is largely for commercial and larger users and is likely to be particularly attractive in rural areas which are not connected to the natural gas grid.  It will increase demand for local biomass, which provides important rural economic benefits[3] while increased use of anaerobic digestion will provide on farm opportunities.

The way buildings are heated has  important rural dimensions.  Homes in rural areas are more likely to use oil boilers, or rely on solid fuel (including peat which is a significant source of heat energy in some counties) For homes the focus in the Climate Action Plan is largely on the installation of heat pumps (600,000 heat pumps to be installed of which 400,000 are to be in existing buildings).  Given that heat pumps are not suitable for many existing dwellings so other heating options must also be explored.  The use of other renewable energy sources may be particularly appropriate in rural dwellings with more space for storage and with easier access to wood fuels and other renewable energy.

There is significant future potential for renewable heat in rural areas, but rural dwellers tend to have lower incomes than urban dwellers and already have higher levels of fuel poverty, so despite the potential for change, many lack the financial resources to switch to low carbon or carbon free alternatives.

 

Transport

Transport efficiency is also important, in terms of the energy used (from whatever source) for powering vehicles, in relation to the number of journeys being made, and the loading of vehicles (with people or freight).  Breaking the direct link between journey numbers and economic growth will be essential to successful climate action.  There are opportunities for rural dwellers (and others of course) for more home working and e- working in hubs and other locations.  Likewise there is significant potential for car sharing and the co-ordination of it both locally and countrywide though specific apps (see Bla Bla Car for example, which is particularly popular in France (read more about it here) and through social media (see this example from Clare).

The Climate Action Plan has a number of specific actions in relation to EV charging (see for example Actions 72-75) and to a CNG network (Action 76).  It is crucial that both of these networks are rolled out all over Ireland so that the adoption of EVs and CNG fuelled vehicles is easy in all rural locations, and that the links between more urban areas and rural areas are seamless.  CNG vehicles must be able to deliver and pick up loads in all parts of Ireland; visitors (e.g. tourists, friends and those in business) who are using EVs must be able to travel to all parts of Ireland confident of an available, reliable charging network.

Public transport and cycling also have an role to play in rural areas and the options for promoting these in ways tailored to the needs of rural dwellers should form an important part of the new rural transport strategy to be developed (Action 100).

Electricity

Ensuring that ESB Networks and EirGrid  plan the network and deliver on connecting renewable energy sources to meet the 2030 target of 70% renewable electricity (RES-E) capacity will mean more grid development in rural areas.  This will be essential to meeting climate action targets and enabling significant electrification of heat and transport.  The use of local rural energy sources is important to Irelands move to a low carbon economy, so it will be important that the financial, employment and enterprise benefits of using local rather than imported energy are felt throughout rural areas.  This will be important to increasing local acceptance of this infrastructure.

Ensuring that the Community Framework to accompany the Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (RESS) is established and that there are “measures in place to ensure that the community benefit fund is equitable and there is strong citizen participation in renewable projects” (Action 28) is also essential.

Developing an enabling framework for microgeneration (Action 30) will potentially have benefits for all areas but there are clear opportunities for rural dwellers, although, as with many climate action measures, they are likely to be of most benefit to those who can afford to make the investment.

Transition to a low carbon rural Western Region- what will it mean?

The Actions under the Climate Plan discussed above give a brief flavour of some of the issues and opportunities for rural areas in the transition to a low carbon economy.  The WDC is currently undertaking a short study of the transition of the region to a low carbon economy.  Action 160 in the Under Citizen Engagement, Community Leadership and Just Transition in the Climate Action Plan Action 160 is to “Assess the economic and employment implications of the transition to a low-carbon economy”.  There are eleven pieces of research and studies which are counted as ‘Steps Necessary for Delivery’ under this action, including the one to be carried out by the WDC “Study of transition to a low carbon economy: impacts for the rural western region.”

This will be an initial scoping of the issues affecting rural dwellers in the Western Region.  The focus is on the three aspects of energy use which can have significant climate implications: Heat and energy efficiency in the built environment, Transport and Electricity.  This study examines issues relating to those for rural dwellers and it is hoped that we will, in future, be able to examine these issues as they affect rural enterprises, the changes they will need to make, the opportunities they may embrace and the employment issues associated with these changes.  Further into the future we may examine the issues for agriculture in the region, given the often extensive pattern of farming and the prevalence of part time farming.  Land use change and natural solutions are also important to rural areas and might in future be considered from a Western Region perspective.

In the short term, however, the focus is on the changes which must be made in energy use and the implications of these for rural dwellers.  These will be the subject of my forthcoming blogs with more detail on the targets, actions and the needs of and opportunities for rural areas.

 

Helen McHenry

[1] This is based on the CSO definition of the population outside settlements of 1,500 or more.  Other definitions show a higher proportion living in rural areas.  See this post for a detailed discussion on “What is rural?”.

[2] Thermal/heat energy is the second largest of the three modes of energy. It accounted for 37% of the final energy demand in 2017 https://www.seai.ie/publications/Renewable-Energy-in-Ireland-2019.pdf

[3] See here for discussion.  The benefits are highlighted although the values are dated https://www.wdc.ie/wp-content/uploads/reports_WoodEnergyStratEconomic-Impact.pdf  (PDF 3MB)