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. 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’. 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.

04 November, 2022

European transport: a whistletop tour


What did the Romans do for us?” echoes in my head every time I tackle challenges on the Transportation Committee of the European Parliament. “What does Europe do for us?” might be the updated version of that old Monty Python line. Over the last three days I have been on a study visit undertaken by the European Parliament’s Transportation Committee looking at transport projects in Germany, Austria, and Italy.  In a sense the trip looked at what the EU is doing for us, two thousand years on from the Romans' achievements. The EU's budget provides €25.6 billion for grants from the EU’s 2021-2027 budget to co-fund Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) projects in the EU Member States, and this was an opportunity to see how this money is being spent. As the Greens / European Free Alliance group's MEP who acts as coordinator on the European Parliamenets Transport Committee it was good to get out of the office and see projects like this at close hand.

Wednesday kicked off with a visit to Deutsche Bahn’s massive rail freight yard in Munich. At EU level we constantly talk about the European Green Deal, and a future that is smart, green, and digital. This was a practical example. The German state-owned rail company is working to automate the coupling and decoupling of rail freight wagons. If successful, this could transform dirty time-consuming work and make it easier and faster to send goods by rail. I was impressed with the work of Dr. Evelyn Nikutta, CEO of  Deutsche Bahn cargo who gave us a masterclass on the challenges she faces, and then brought us into the freight yard and showed each of the MEPs present how to put join up and then dissemble freight wagons. For me, the take-away from all of this is that automation and digitalisation is hugely challenging, but if successful, can be transformative in achieving a modal shift to rail for long-distance cargo. In Ireland it is hard to make rail freight successful as the journey lenghts are short, but I intend discussing what Germany is doing with my colleagues back home who cover transport issues. There's certainly scope for Iarnród Éireann to transport more freight by rail, and in doing so help meet our climate goals

That evening we travelled by coach to Innsbruck, Austria and had a working dinner with the incoming Governor of Tyrol, Anton Mattle and we discussed making the Single European Rail Area a reality. Josef Dopplebauer of the EU Agency for Railways highlighted the regulatory minefield that needs tackling: different voltages, regulations in each Member State for braking systems, Italian requirements for a second person in the locomotive cab and on it goes. Quite a challenge, and hopefully new EU regulations can tackle this, but worryingly the European Commission has not been vocal on this issue since the Fourth Railway Package of legislation was legislated for the best part of a decade ago.

On Wednesday I kicked off the day meeting former Austrian Green MEP Eva Lichtenberger. She explained the challenge of traffic in these steep Alpine valleys, where noise from traffic is a big issue for many, and pollution can be trapped with temperature inversions during the winter months. The new tunnel will help, but with traffic set to increase with economic growth in the coming years the gains from greater rail traffic will be offset by the overall growth. It was clear to me that we must decouple economic growth from environmental damage.

Then it was off to the Brenner Base Tunnel, under the Alps that will revolutionise rail travel on the ScanMed corridor between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean. Pat Cox, former President of the European Parliament is the EU’s coordinator for this massive Trans-European Network Transport (TEN-T) Corridor which stretches from the Baltic Sea to the tip of Italy. In reality, even this section of the route is a series of separate projects that link up to achieve a transformation in connectivity, and I couldn’t help but think that even greater co-ordination is required, as the opening date for this particular section of the route was kicked back from 2028 to 2032, and parts of the rail network won’t be completed until 2040. It was humbling to hear from engineers who started off working on the project just after they finished college, and who will retire before the corridor is completed. After the discussions and a safety briefing, we travelled several kilometres by bus inside the mountain and walked through some of the enormous caverns that have been excavated. The main tunnel will be fift kilometres long, one of the biggest engineering projects underway in the world. I learnt that tunnels like this are hot, wet, loud, and dirty. Water dripped down from the cement sprayed on the ceiling, and this far underground the ground temperature can be in the mid-thirties. There’s enormous potential to use this geo-thermal energy, and in a nearby project it has been used to heat the waters of a fish farm that cultivates sturgeon.

Years ago, the engineer managing the Dublin Port Tunnel told me that for him the project was a communications exercise, more so than an engineering project. Here in the Alps the same issue came up, but more importantly the importance of getting the contracts right seems to be a crucial factor in fast-tracking the project. The project was due to come in at €8.8 Billion, but this seems set to rise, as the main power source for tunnelling is electricity, and energy costs have gone through the roof in recent months. Fun fact: trains in Italy drive on the right, and in Austria and Germany on the left, so the two rail tunnels cross each other half-way through the mountain. It was dark by the time we emerged from the tunnel, and we drove down the south side of the alps to Bolzano in the Italian province of Trentino Alto Adige.

On Friday morning, it was lashing rain, and we headed on our bus to an Industrial Estate on the outskirts of Bolzano. There we visited Alpitronic, a company that makes fast chargers for electric vehicles. Philipp Senoner one of the four founders of the company explained their meteoric growth from thirty-eight employees five years ago to two hundred today, in the process becoming a market leader in France, Germany, Italy and Austria for installing EV chargers. Their hypercharger can deliver 300 kW, and fully charge a vehicle in 15 minutes. Recently US President Joe Biden announced a $7.5 billion boost for “Made in America” chargers under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, but investment in the EU, and even in Germany will surpass this. Philipp made a plea to us as EU legislators to achieve harmonisation on the calibration methodology and regulation at EU level, a request that I will send on to the mandarins in DG Move, the European Commission’s Transport department. Interestingly he started off his studies in Munich, and their initial products were ground supply power units for aircraft, but now EV charging is the future. One aspect of trips like these is the opportunity to spend time with colleagues from across the political divide. I may disagree with my EPP and ID colleagues when I stress the urgency of green issues, but spending time in each other’s company allows discussions to take place that would not happen in Brussels.

Before I travelled back home by taxis, trains, and a Ryanair flight from Bergamo to Dublin I paid a quick visit to the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology. There the mummified remains of Ötzi the iceman are exhibited in an refrigerated exhibition case. He died on an Alpine pass 5,300 years ago, and his frozen body was exposed by a melting glacier in 1991. I did not have time to take in the entire display, but the wealth of information that we have learnt about his life at a time before Newgrange and the Pyramids were built is an extraordinary story that will bring me back to this part of Italy at some stage.

04 November 2022

20 October, 2022

Decarbonising Buildings: the road ahead


On Friday 7th October 2022 I spoke at the Irish Building and Design Awards at the Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin. Thanks to Louis Gunnigan, my former colleague from TU Dublin for the invitation! I explained what the European Union is doing about tackling climate change, and I spoke specifically about the challenges that we face in the building sector. Here’s what I said:

I want to talk to you about a revolution. Do not panic, it is a gentle revolution, and you are already part of it. In fact, we are living through it. Called the European Green Deal, it is the ‘big idea' behind the European Union’s actions over recent years. Initiated by European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, it underpins the work of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament. Some see it as a growth strategy, some see it as a means for a Just Transition, and others see it as a mechanism that can deliver the climate action that science demands over the coming years. It changes the way we produce and use energy; the way we travel, the food we grow and eat, and lastly, and importantly the buildings that we construct and renovate.

Agriculture, Energy, Transport, Construction: all these sectors are adapting to meet the demands of our changing climate. Of course, we cannot just clap our hands and say, ‘Make it so!” We need new laws, and revisions of the existing ones to decarbonise Europe, and currently there are about twenty draft laws on the table. The Energy Efficiency Directive, the Renewable Energy Directive, and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive are all being updated to meet our new ambition. They are part of the so-called ‘Fit for 55’ package, aiming to reduce emissions by 55% between 1990 and 2030, no easy task.

Since the European Green Deal launched, we have seen Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, and our energy supplies from Russia are reducing. However, we want to be completely independent from Russian fossil fuels before 2030, and that is the overarching aim of the EU’s ‘RePowerEU plan’. A central element is installing a massive number of solar panels and heat pumps in the coming years.
I am the rapporteur or chief negotiator on the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, and it will play a central role in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, rolling out renewable technologies to homes across Europe, and achieving our climate goals.   

Research tells us that the buildings that house the 450 million people living in the EU consume 40% of the energy and are responsible for 36% of the greenhouse gas emissions. This impact is enormous, and that is why we need to decarbonise our new buildings, and the existing building stock to reach near zero emissions by 2050. 80%/90% of the buildings we use today will still be with us in 2050, so renovating the existing stock will be crucial. Retrofitting existing buildings to an A rating is quite the challenge over the next 25/30 years. The most sustainable building is the one that already exists. And there will be opt-outs for Protected Structures. We have no intention to put a rooflight over the Pantheon or apply external insulation.

With the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, I am pushing for very ambitious targets. However, I must collaborate with colleagues from different political groups, and I suspect my ambition will be tempered by their cautiousness. The final draft of this legislation should be approved by the middle of next year. For now, allow me to give you an overview of what we want to achieve from the outset.

First, we want to have one-stop shops in every country that can provide free impartial advice for energy upgrades to households and businesses, and we want to prioritise a neighbourhood approach so that communities can work together to reduce their bills and achieve savings with economies of scale.

Second, we have ambitious plans on electrification. We want to phase out the installation of heating units that use gas or oil, and electrify everything our heating needs, and yes, we need to reinforce the grid to make this happen. We want EV charging installations in all new buildings from 2025.

Third, a key element in the new law will be Minimum Energy Performance Standards for new buildings and upgrades, so that we are firmly on a glide-path to an A-rating for most buildings in the coming years. Of course, these are in place in Ireland for new builds, but many other countries do not have these. Of course, social safeguards will be required to protect tenants who may be at risk of renoviction.

Fourth, we have pushed for all new buildings to be Zero Emission Buildings by 2025 for residential, < 60 kW/m2 pa, but using renewable sources either generated on site; from renewable energy communities; or from district heating systems. We want existing buildings to achieve a C rating by 2030, though this target may be pushed back in the political discussions that we are having. The key moment to undertake works is at the trigger point when a building is sold or leased. We of course differentiate between existing and new buildings, public and private, housing, and other uses and have different targets accordingly. We know there are bottlenecks and shortages in terms of skills, and materials, but these will reduce over time. We also know it will create jobs, perhaps half a million by the end of the decade and these are professional, skilled, and unskilled jobs that will support local and regional economies across the EU.

Finally, we need the money. The cost of these works will run to trillions of euro. But from the conversations I am having with financial institutions they are saying they want to lend and will do so once the legislation is enacted. And the rates of return will increase as we rely less on expensive fossil fuels, and the returns will be predictable. Even the European Investment Bank is rebranding itself as the Climate Bank, and it is already lending to local authorities here in Dublin to fund deep renovations. 

Friends, colleagues, the aim of the EPBD is to decarbonise all buildings in the EU by 2050, and this is no mean feat. We will need ambition, money, skills, and supplies to get us there. As members of this industry - whether you are a construction worker, an architect, a supplier of renewable technologies, or a building owner - we all have a role to play in this gentle revolution. I know many of you are already meeting or exceeding these targets in your work, and that is fantastic to see. It is great to have you with us on this, and I wish you the very best with the work that lies ahead.

Uploaded 20 October 2022