Time to put on the Green jersey

Climate Justice
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Billy MacInnes asks why there is a lack of clarity over the role of data centres in climate policy

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5 November 2021 | 0

It’s been a mildly disturbing month for anyone interested in knowing the nation’s priorities when it comes to climate change and energy policy. Many people will be aware of Ireland’s unique position in the EU as a country where greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture make up a much larger share of its overall emissions. In 2018, for example. agriculture was responsible for 33% of all our greenhouse gas emissions.

There’s a fairly obvious source for this, methane emissions from cattle, so it was good to see Taoiseach Micheál Martin among the political leaders signing the pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30% at COP26. Perhaps not so reassuring was the sight of Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, at almost exactly the same time, telling the Dail that Ireland only planned to reduce its methane emissions by 10% and there was no way that reduction would come at the expense of the chief source of those emissions: the national herd. There would be no cull of the herd, he told TD Michael Collins of the Rural Independents Group.

Ah yes, the national herd. The country’s herd. Time to put on the green jersey – yes, it seems there are such creatures as green Jersey cows – and support our plucky cattle. Although the swell of pride and emotion we feel in our nation’s cows may be soured a little by the government’s cunning proposal to stabilise our herd by killing them at a younger age.

 

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Still as we brace ourselves to do battle on behalf of the national herd against the do-gooders and tree-huggers, one of our estimable politicians is bound to ask why all the environmental types waxing lyrical about the benefits of renewables and wind power turn so hostile when the wind is coming from the backsides of our cows.

Talk of wind brings us to the subject of data centres. The government’s climate action plan envisages that carbon emissions from the energy sector will need to reduce by 62-81% by 2030, mainly through the use of renewables. This compares to a rate of 22-30% for agriculture.

The target is definitely ambitious, particularly when set against the backdrop of recent warnings of potential energy blackouts in the country. As has been pointed out by others, it probably doesn’t help that Ireland is busy trying to make itself a data centre hub while all this is happening.

In that context, it was dispiriting to see IDA Ireland chief executive Martin Shanahan telling the Irish Times just days before the action plan was agreed that it would be wrong to try and curb the building of new data centres.

He stressed that the IDA wanted “to ensure that the energy supply which has long been part of our positive arsenal to market Ireland remains part of our positive arsenal to market Ireland. That is hugely important – and questions over energy supply obviously are unhelpful in terms of marketing Ireland”.

They may be unhelpful but if there are concerns over energy supply, it doesn’t seem that unreasonable to be discussing them.

“We have set ourselves out as a technology hub,” Shanahan stated. “An integral part of that ecosystem is the availability of data centres. I would be concerned that we decide to limit enterprise activity, which ultimately is contributing to the economy and paying for the things we all enjoy as citizens and as a society, in the short term.”

Strangely, the fact that the energy demands of those data centres might make it harder to guarantee power supply to houses, offices, schools and the like for Irish people to go about their daily lives doesn’t appear to be quite as big a concern.

“You can’t turn it off and on,” Shanahan argued (which, incidentally, is also the situation you find yourself in when the power goes out). “You can’t decide we maybe don’t want a certain type of investment today – data centres – but actually at the point where we have significant offshore wind available we want them again. It doesn’t work like that.”

Which is strange because that sounds like an eminently sensible approach. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here in thinking that if you don’t have enough energy supply for the country and for new data centres, you should probably concentrate on supplying the country first.

It’s dispiriting that the government regards any commitment to emissions targets designed to protect us against climate change as secondary to the value it attaches to cow’s farts. And I’m not convinced we also deserve to be left sitting in the dark so they can keep the lights on in the data centres.

But maybe the problem is I’m not being patriotic enough. Perhaps I would change my tune if politicians started talking about the national data centres and we all donned the green jersey for them as well. A word of warning, however, it might be best to do it in the daytime before it gets too dark to see what we’re doing.

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