24 March, 2024

Wind energy and nature protection, a win-win?

Speaking at the Wind Europe conference in Bilbao, Spain

I headed to Spain last Thursday from Brussels.

My trip there was to speak at the Wind Europe conference in Bilbao, a massive event with over 12,000 delegates.  I was asked to reflect on whether there is a conflict between high targets for renewable energy under the Renewable Energy Directive (RED III), and the strong push to protect biodiversity under the Nature Restoration Law and other European measures such as the Biodiversity Strategy.

I said that both policies need not necessarily lead to conflict, and that it isn’t a zero sum game.  As the North Sea Foundation points out here, as well as Laura Gusatu and others, there are both risks and opportunities. Sure, the target under RED III of 42.5% of the EU’s energy coming from renewables by 2030 is high, and the RepowerEU Plan has even higher ambition of 45%, but they can be delivered, and in doing so we mitigate the impacts of global heating.   However EU Member States will have to rapidly ramp up ambition in the coming years if we are to be successful. I pass by the large Gwynt y Môr wind farm off the coast of Wales quite regularly on my Sailrail journeys to Brussels, and noticed recently that there is currently a second wind farm adjacent to it in the pipeline. I understand how communities are concerned at the impact of this infrastructure, not least their visual impact in scenic areas.

Biodiversity Plans need to be written and approved quickly, energy efficiency measures have to be stepped up, and there needs to be more engagement with Civil Society.  In the Irish context that means  responding to the voices of organisations like the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, An Taisce and the Coastal Concern Alliance.  I said that the setting up of MARA -the new Irish Maritime Area Regulatory Authority is a crucial development, but that we also need to step up our efforts to educe for the future skills that are required in the sector.  I also spoke of the potential for ‘Renewable Energy Communities’.  These are legislated for under the Renewables Directives and can allow local communities to buy in to future projects, and become part owners of projects within their region.

At an EU level we must invest in electricity grids to get from where it is produced to where it is needed.  There’s no transition without transmission” said one speaker, was it Olivia Breese from Ørsted? And it is true, the EU’s Action Plan for Grids announced last November will help, but the Trans-European Network Plan for Energy needs to be revised to focus more on this.  The in-box of the next European Commission, to be appointed next Autumn will be full.

Seabed surveys using sonar can affect cetacean behaviour, and the Scottish Government has shown how this can be reduced. Construction noise can impact on cetaceans at sea, and the use of screw piles rather than hammer-driven piles can help.  Air bubble curtains can also help ameliorate noise.  During the operation phase low frequency noise can also be an issue, and needs to be carefully considered.

As wind turbines get larger the turbine blades can be higher.  This reduces conflicts with certain bird species that fly at low altitude.  Black paint on turbine blade tips can render the blades more visible and help birds change their flight paths to avoid the blades.  There’s also untapped potential for bird flock radar monitoring during migration periods which can ensure energy providers power down turbines as birds approach to reduce the risk of collisions.  I've seen this in operation in the Netherlands some years ago. All of these technologies go some way to help reduce the impacts on nature.  From Denmark there’s some evidence that the artificial rock reefs at underwater turbine bases can provide a habitat for marine species, though sediment disturbance during construction is a problem.  Once constructed however , wind farms provide significant areas that are protected from bottom trawling, and this can create de facto maritime parks.  

With Belgian colleague Energy Minister Tinne Van Der Straeten

I met my Belgian colleague Energy Minister Tinne Van Der Straeten, and she said we should make greater use of Regional Plans, and I tend to agree.  Ditte Jul Jorgensen, Director-General of DG ENER (the European Commission’s energy unit) said we need to stay the course, and simplify bureaucracy.  In addition, more work is needed on EU Strategic Autonomy.  This can ensure that we are less reliant on China for key components of the renewable revolution.  The EU’s Net-Zero Industry Act will help to push the ‘Made in Europe’ drive, and will provide a more focused response to US President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

At a separate session, I heard Grzegorz Gorski from Ocean Energy spoke of the supply chain challenges within the industry that have been there since the pandemic.  Separately, Trine Boris Bojsen of Equinor’s North Sea Renewables spoke of the need for standardisation within the industry, so rather than jumping at the prospect of 22 MW turbines, we should stick with 15 MW, which incidentally is enormous compared with what was being rolled out a decade ago. 


Exhibition Hall at the Wind Europe Conference in Bilbao

It was a lively conference, and I haven’t even mentioned the enormous exhibition halls that displayed new technologies and equipment. Renewables have been a success story for Ireland, almost 40% of our electricity now comes from renewables, and both wind and solar are set to ramp up in the years ahead. As the week drew to a close, we heard of a new Taoiseach-apparent in Ireland, Simon Harris, and from Brussels concerns that the draft Nature Restoration Law may be voted down by the Council of Ministers. 

 It seems the fight for nature will be a crunch issue in the European elections on Friday 7th June.


08 January, 2024

Burning of the Shipwright guesthouse in Ringsend

Burning down buildings like the Shipwright pub and guesthouse in Ringsend is an obscene act at a time when thousands of people are in need of accommodation.  Up to 14 homeless families could have been housed here before last week's senseless and dangerous attack. This is a serious crime carrying heavy sentences, and the arsonists can and should be brought to justice.

Immigration to Ireland is a good thing. If it weren’t for those who have come to our shores, Ireland could not provide the doctors, the key workers, the carers that we rely on.  From your Dublin Bus driver to the shop assistant in your local Centra, to the surgeons in Beaumont, immigrants keep this country going. But for me it’s also personal. My mother was an immigrant who found a new life and raised her family in Ireland.

And yes, immigration reforms are needed at EU level, including reshaping Frontex, and faster decisions here at home, and better communication, but pushbacks at sea are wrong, and leaving people to drown in the Mediterranean is immoral, and don’t tell me that those seeking international protection in times of violence and persecution do not deserve our help, and don’t give me this ‘unvetted young men of military age’ small-minded nonsense.  

And of course, we need to ramp up housing construction, just like we did almost a century ago when Herbert Simms designed these homes (pan to buildings behind) for Dublin Corporation back in the 1930s, and remember, back then people objected to  homes for those in need as well.

This is a time for compassion, and supporting people who need and deserve safety and shelter - whether those are homeless families or people fleeing violence and persecution abroad.

14 September, 2023

Low-carbon travel from Dublin to Strasbourg

This week I was in Strasbourg from Dublin for European Parliament debates and votes this week. I traveled by buses, trains and ferry. If you’re curious about ‘low-carbon’ travel you might like this account of my journey. Living in Stoneybatter in Dublin 7 I was able to walk down the road and take the FerryLink shuttle bus that goes from the Ashling Hotel near Heuston Station to the ferry terminals at Dublin Port, stopping en route at Bachelors Walk and Customs House Quay in the city centre. A  trip down the Liffey Quays: ‘Grand yet human in scale, varying, yet orderly” according to the Architectural Review back in 1974‘ brought me to the Irish ferries terminal, dwarfed by the 12 deck high MV Ulysses behind. Once you check in, a shuttlebus brings you a few hundred metres to the front of the High Speed Craft Dublin Swift which gets to Holyhead in just two hours From Dublin Port we head  past the Pigeon House chimneys and out into Dublin Bay past the Poolbeg Lighthouse heading east to Wales. Interestingly the HSC Dublin Swift started life as a United States troop carrier, and was used in rescue operations after the Japanese Tsunami back in 2011. So even though the leg room is good, I’m a bit nostalgic for the old HSC Jonathan Swift which had a more comfortable interior.

On board there’s time for coffee, and decent wi-fi for Zoom calls, though the sky was  looking fairly gray after last week’s mini-heatwave. The SailRail ticket is a wonderfully old-fashioned piece of paper, and their train image looks a bit like an old CIE 001 Class locomotive from 1955, built in the old Metropolitan-Vickers plant in Manchester.  Why Sailrail? Well, it’s better for the planet, about six times better, so as someone who travels a lot for work by planes, trains and ferries, I try where I can to let the train take the strain  Once I arrived in Holyhead after a two hour crossing it was down with the gangplank, and off go the cars. Cue disgruntled mutterings from those of us who have to wait for the bus to the ferry terminal. You then walk through the terminal to the rail station where there’s a welcome stand and the women there gave me a map of Holyhead, and some key Welsh phrases to learn. It was a lovely touch from th Welsh Tourism agency. Then it was time to hop on a train and  head to Chester via the north Wales coastline, with fine views of the Gwynt y Môr wind farm, 15 km. offshore.  

I changed to a faster train at Chester that powered down to London Euston through Stafford and Milton Keynes. When the first phase of High Speed 2 opens in the late 2020s it may shave an hour of the 4 hour Holyhead London trip. On arriving at Euston, after a four hour trip from Holyhead I take a 15 minute walk to St.Pancras International, avoiding the polluted Euston Road by taking the ‘Wellbeing Walk’ through Somers Town. It was my first time using the ‘Smart Check’ app at St. Pancras which allows you to fast-track straight through check-in without a ticket check, and side-skip UK passport checks.There I hopped on a Eurostar headed for Paris. You head across the English Channel through a tunnel that is 50km long, that was opened in 1993.You arrive after two hours in Paris Gare du Nord and the clock has moved forward by an hour so it is early evening.I then took  a short stroll to Gare de l’Est. I had some time to spare in in Paris and was impressed with the number of cyclists. There has been a huge rise in cycling numbers here under Mayor Anne Hidalgo. At 8.30pm I get on to my last train, a two hour hop by TGV across France to Strasbourg on the Franco-German border, and time to prepare for tomorrow’s meetings. It was a full-on day of travel, but a significantly lower environmental footprint then flying, and more leg-room and less airport hassle.

As regards cost: the  Eurostar and continental trains prices rise closer to departure. A Sailrail ticket generally cost €52s to London, the Ferrylink bus costs €4.50. Looking at prices, the London Paris Eurostar costs €86 in a fortnight’s time, and the French train ticket €45 from SNCF, so under €200 for the whole trip. It is true that flights are much cheaper! They often are, as airlines don’t pay tax on their fuel, but the Greens in the European Parliament  are working on ‘fairer fares’ and a level playing field. Carbon? Sure, Ferries use marine diesel oil, a dirty fuel on each trip, but foot passengers are only a small share of that, the bulk is cars and trucks. On balance the SailRail combo is many times cleaner than flying,  Recently Minister Eamon Ryan and his French counter-part announced improvements that are making  Sailrail journeys between Ireland and France easier. Here’s a write-up in @TheJournal about the Sailrail changes that will hopefully make low-carbon travel a more attractive option.

Oh, and if you’re planning a SailRail trip via the UK Mark Smith of Seat61.com is the guru for travel advice. Thanks as always @seatsixtyone.  Also, this week in Strasbourg we adopted a new law known as the ReFuelEU Regulation which will mandate the use of 'Sustainable Aviation Fuels' for aircraft in the years to come. The requirement starts at 2% in 2025, rises to 5% in 2030, and wit will take many years until the figure reaches 50%. In the meantime aviation numbers continue to rise. So, for the moment the greenest option is to avoid flying, or fly less, if you can. 

Do I fly? Sure I do, and my job would be a real challenge if I didn’t. But when and where I can I try and take trains and ferries, and around half of the 200,000 km. I’ve travelled over the last four years as an MEP were ‘low-carbon’.

11 June, 2023

Responding to Racism

The attack and intimidation of a group of homeless international protection applicants on Dublin's Upper Sandwith Street last a month ago was a shameful event, and has been rightfully condemned by the government and Irish authorities at large.

This attack, and the protests that accompanied it, are the dangerous results of an effort to conflate structural challenges facing Irish society, such as the long-standing housing crisis, to argue against immigration. The Irish Freedom Party’s Hermann Kelly and others have used the well-worn trope of “unvetted men of military age” to cloak an anti-immigrant narrative, for example. Last month, we saw how discriminatory and racist narratives against vulnerable groups can incite violence. It is incumbent on public representatives to counteract these myths spread by those fuelling racism in our communities, as well as take action against the underlying causes.  

There was nothing inevitable about this event, which should further focus minds on the actions that are needed to better protect migrants living in Ireland, and address the underlying causes behind the rise of the far-right in this country. As war continues to rage in Eastern Europe, we can expect immigration to Ireland to rise. Over one year since Russia’s invasion against Ukraine, we have become less knowledgeable about the daily course of events in the war-torn country. However, news of the Russian missile attack on a hospital in Adviivka, Ukraine, or the breaching of the Kakhovka dam remind us that war is ongoing in Europe.

As long as violence continues in Ukraine, people will continue to flee. They will seek safety to a large extent in neighbouring countries, hoping they may one day be able to return home. From these places of refuge, they will suffer trauma from their country’s invasion for many years to come. It is incumbent on countries that host people fleeing such violence to show them compassion throughout their journey by providing them with help and support to address their basic needs.

Ireland, through its representatives in the Irish government and within the host communities across this island, has provided those fleeing the Ukraine war with such compassion and support. The State effort to accommodate refugees is generously supplemented by tens of thousands of Irish families, who have opened their doors to many Ukrainian families. This act of care and compassion is one of the best ways that a militarily neutral country like Ireland can support the people of Ukraine. The Irish contribution extends further, however, and we remain intent on providing medical and mine-clearing training to Ukraine. 

We cannot forget, however, that war in Ukraine is not the only violent conflict or circumstance happening from which people are fleeing today. The central Mediterranean route remains the ‘deadliest migration route in the world’, according to the UN. As President Michael D. Higgins recently warned, it is important that Ireland welcomes people fleeing persecution ‘without distinction’. In doing so, we avoid creating a two-tiered system of international protection that privileges some applicants over others.

From the beginning of the Ukraine war, a coordinated response across multiple government departments kicked into gear with almost immediate effect. In a short space of time, departments and officials rolled out a large-scale, national response to an unfolding crisis with many unknowns. Many people within these departments who traditionally responded cautiously and carefully to certain events, seriously upped their game to cope with the pressures placed on them at short notice. As a large-scale operation organised under severe time pressure, bumps in the road can be expected. Over the last year, the government response has faced challenges and certain measures should be implemented immediately: greater coordination is required between different sections of Government to ensure services are not overly stretched, and communication with host communities should be improved.

Ireland also faces long-standing structural problems that are categorically not caused by the arrival of people who have fled conflict and violence abroad. This is a fact rightly pointed out by a variety of commentators in Ireland in response to the recent growth in activities of the far-right in Ireland. Even before the war in Ukraine, housing, health, and education systems struggled to cope with the demands placed on them. Our response must be not only to help those in need, but also to accelerate the roll-out of housing, and reinforce our education and healthcare systems for all who need support.

When it comes to matters of asylum policy, however, Ireland’s immigration system and the EU’s Common European Asylum System are simply not fit for purpose. They cannot adequately provide those seeking protection with a fair and dignified application process in their current state. In Ireland, long-standing proposals to update Irish immigration legislation must be delivered. We must reform our nationality and citizenship laws so that people who come to Ireland are not left in limbo for many years. The Direct Provision system must be abolished.

Meanwhile, the EU has been in ‘crisis mode’ since 2015 in response to increased numbers of people arriving in Europe. Eight years later, this crisis is best described as a crisis created by the EU’s response (or lack thereof) to this development. The ongoing failure to reach consensus or generate a broad sense of solidarity between European countries continues to hamper the progress of real, working solutions in this policy area. The horrifying outcomes of this failure, as they have unfolded in Libya and the Mediterranean, are captured incisively by Irish Times journalist Sally Hayden in her reporting.

We know what needs to be done: The Dublin Regulation, the EU law that determines which Member State is responsible for the examination of an application for asylum, must be reformed. Only with this reform, can we help ensure Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy are not put under unfair pressure to accept disproportionate numbers of migrants. At a wider level, we need better travel procedures so that passports cannot disappear between embarkation and arrival. The EU’s border management agency Frontex must be reformed and held accountable for their actions, and any future actions or policies must proceed in alignment with the EU fundamental rights charter. These are among the priorities of my political group, the Greens/EFA, during ongoing negotiations to reform the Common European Asylum System.

The progress of negotiations on these points has been disappointing, however. The voices who promote a ‘Fortress Europe’ approach have gained considerable weight in European negotiations, as efforts to promote solidarity and consensus on this issue have been unsuccessful. We will continue to push back against this approach, nonetheless. Now is not a time to cosy up to right-wing populists like Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. We know that bridges are needed more than walls, and I believe that Ireland can and should show leadership on this issue.

In Dublin’s North Inner City where I live, forty percent of the population were born abroad. Their contribution to the city’s economic, social, and cultural heritage is immense. To safeguard these contributions and to protect the well-being of the current and future residents of our city who join us from abroad, we must provide fairer and more dignified procedures. We must make the necessary investments to the benefit of all. Ireland must provide leadership. 

In February, I listened to Volodymyr Zelenskyy address the European parliament. He stressed that Europe is steeped in rules, values, equality and fairness. The President of Ukraine made it clear in his speech that the Russian regime hates equality, and threatens our European values and way of life. Our best response is to live up to the values we espouse, and hold ourselves to the standards that we project to the world.