Many may not realise the impact of the recent decision by An Bord Pleanála to abandon the Galway ring road as a result of a High Court case.
The court case was brought by Friends of the Irish Environment over the lack of assessment of the climate impact of the road.
The decision bears startling implications for many, not only the long-suffering people of Galway but also agriculture.
Even more so, after the decision by the Supreme Court to insulate those taking such court actions from the costs of a failed challenge. This decision to accept that new road projects will have to consider the climate impact means many other road projects will face difficult questions if they are to go ahead.
Firstly, it is important to understand the implications of requiring road construction to consider climate change.
New roads increase emissions. This has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout scientific research. This may seem counter intuitive, surely bypasses which prevent congestion in towns and cities help to reduce emissions? Well they do.
When looking at local air quality, less idling cars in traffic do improve emissions of damaging nitrous dioxide especially from diesel cars.
However, fuel use increases with speed and so increasing carbon emissions, a car doing 100km/hr, will emit more over the same distance than a car doing 50km/hr.
Add to this, bypasses usually require longer routes to avoid urban areas and it’s understandable why road projects cause more direct emissions. However, there is a far larger issue, that is reduced traffic jams actually encourage more car use.
Ask any civil engineer and they’ll be quick to explain to you just how this works.
In essence, improving commutes by reducing congestion and delays results in more people choosing their car over public transport with its delays and discomfort.
Roads have a habit of increasing car use to the point where the congestion simply returns extremely quickly
For decades, this was a reasonable trade-off. Governments provided new roads, citizens increased their car use and that car use meant more fuel use and so Exchequer funding through taxes on fuel.
Never mind that, roads have a habit of increasing car use to the point where the congestion simply returns extremely quickly.
Despite numerous promises that, for instance, the extra lane on the M50 in 2010 would solve tailbacks, the problem simply returned in force.
The issue now though is the legal commitments to reduce emissions mean this free-for-all has to end. Instead, when governments want to plan large road building they must account for those roads’ increased climate emissions so reductions will be sought elsewhere.
As explained in a previous piece I wrote for the Irish Farmers Journal, those cuts cannot realistically come from energy, leaving only agriculture.
Getting into numbers is difficult, although it is well established that more road space means more cars, meaning more transport emissions, quantifying exactly how much is a challenge.
Thankfully for our purpose, Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) has done its homework and stated the Galway ring road would increase carbon emissions by 26,000t of CO2 in the year of opening to 35,800t by 2039.
Even 30,000t of CO2 produced annually would be equivalent to all the methane from 14,677 suckler cows that would need to be culled, voluntarily or not, by 2030 to hit national emissions targets.
Perhaps the electric vehicle (EV) will save us then, since after all they lack any tailpipe emissions. Unfortunately not, leaving aside the issues of capacity for energy generation, 1km driven by an EV is not emissions-free, just less. However, the recent announcement of the scrapping of the target of one million EVs pours cold water on even that.
Instead, the focus for the Minister for Transport will either be actively reducing journeys elsewhere to facilitate the emissions from these new roads or looking for a substantial increase in targets to cut agricultural emissions at the review in 2024.
For most of rural Ireland, car use is a necessity. Spotty public transport, unreliable timetables and successive governments’ lack of investment has created this situation. The ramifications of this are clear, pushing rural dwellers into dependence on private cars shifts the costs to those who need to travel. Whereas our urban counterparts may pay as little as €10 for a week’s transport via their Leap cards, we are exposed to rising diesel and insurance costs.
Now there will be a second negative as increasing transport emissions will directly lead to harder cuts for the agriculture sector regardless of the efforts of farm groups.
Investing any more in expanding our road network instead of providing more public transport to rural dwellers though will mean yet more unfairness on both rural commuters and farmers.
After all, every euro spent to build roads is a euro not spent on public transport or low carbon infrastructure. Now though, these projects may even come with a bill for those who never even use them.