The 2023 Climate Action Plan  sets out massively ambitious targets for reducing transport emissions by over 50% before the end of the decade. The plan cites a modelling approach that demonstrates these emission reductions are possible. This modelling exercise was given a target emissions reduction and the outputs of the model demonstrate which modes of transport we need to use more of, and less of, to reach this target. However, these models can in some instances fail to consider the most important part about transport planning — the citizen and the length of time it takes for behavioural change to happen.
If one wonders why are we in this situation in the first place, and why is it that we have to cut our emissions in transport so dramatically in such a short period of time. The answer to this question is because we simply have to — the climate emergency is such that waiting around for other solutions to come along or ‘magic technologies’ that will do the heavy lifting for us is no longer a viable solution. The reason we have to do so much now is because we have done so little for so long in transport investment. In 2019, it was shown that 74% of all of the trips we take in our country are done so by private car , and outside of Dublin the usage of public transport is sparse at best . The decades of investment in major road schemes have also locked our citizens into a car centric culture, making the car the most attractive option to many and resulting in any change to this status quo being very difficult to achieve. Ireland is also a relatively sparsely populated country, compared to our European neighbours , and this makes the provision of public transport and active modes much more challenging.
In 2022, the OECD published a comprehensive analysis of the transportation sector in Ireland with a detailed review of the current strategies being pursued to reduce emissions . The messages from the report were very clear — to have the type of systemic change that's required in our country involves a substantial reorganisation of the public realm in Ireland. The report also indicated that our current strategies of promoting the use and uptake of electric cars was regressive, and could potentially result in the car population in our country increasing. Research that was published by myself and my colleagues in 2022 demonstrated that the majority of electric cars in Ireland tend to be in the most affluent parts of our country. These are the areas where people drive the least .
Minister Eamon Ryan has said on several occasions that the transportation emissions targets will be the most difficult to achieve. He is correct, and this is mainly because how and why we travel are primarily linked to where we work and to where we live. For the majority of us, these locations rarely change. Equally, the time to plan, evaluate, and deliver large-scale, and even small-scale, public transport and active travel takes far too long in this country. Changes to the built environment for more sustainable transport modes tend to be a lightning rod for heated debate, and small changes to local areas end up on the front pages of national newspapers. The type of changes that are required to cut emissions before the end of the decade by the magnitude required could cause severe division — unless they are handled in a way that brings everyone along the journey.
While I do think that we can achieve this 50% reduction in transport emissions, I do not think it can be achieved in the timelines outlined by the Climate Action Plan 2023. This is mainly because the delivery of large-scale transportation infrastructure takes a significant amount of time, and is very expensive. Many of the large-scale public transport infrastructure projects like Metrolink or the light rail lines planned in Dublin and Cork require a large amount of planning and capital expenditure in a short period of time. Delivering the amount of infrastructure required in Dublin alone, in such a short space of time, would seem to me to be similar to a city planning to host a summer Olympic Games. Cities across the world that have achieved the sustainable transport goals that we plan for in Dublin, and our other cities, have been undertaking this change over decades. It takes a lot of political bravery to embark on these changes. It can take decades to plan and deliver large-scale public transport infrastructure, but equally, it can take that period of time for behavioural change to happen. We are often told about the cycling cultures in the Netherlands and in Denmark, but these cultures did not happen overnight and took decades to deliver.
To loop back to my initial opening statement, I believe that just because the models say something is possible, does not necessarily mean that it is feasible, or even achievable. Decades of car-centric planning and dispersed settlement patterns are at odds with the ambitions outlined for change in our mobility system. The 2022 OECD report  on transport in Ireland stressed that local level and community engagement will be key to achieving our goals. Achieving our climate goals will need both dialogue and consensus at a local level, matched with a national ambition of scale and complexity equivalent to the construction of Ardnacrusha in the 1920s to be successful.