In the latest of our climate change series, Tom Golden tells Bridget Ginnity that as a country we can look to our responses to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine for examples of a rapid and meaningful response to a crisis.
As well as working as an engineer with Analog Devices, Mohawk and ATS, I’ve been a youth worker, a builder and stay-at-home father.
At one time I used to sell a few vegetables in Bunratty that I grew on a quarter acre, usually bringing one of the kids with me on the bike and trailer.
I met and fell in love with a great woman, Ann. The priest at the wedding, our friend Seán Sexton, said ‘we took serious only the serious things’. One of those serious things is the climate crisis. It is core to how I live my life.
Crisis, what crisis?
I’ve a fridge magnet that says “No one will blame us for climate change except our grandchildren”. I am reluctant to preach or suggest how anyone else should live their lives but I would like to challenge people a small bit.
We live in an existential climate and biodiversity crisis. Most people acknowledge this but there’s no deep connection with it.
As a society we bury our heads in the sand and hope that our actions don’t have the consequences for climate change that the scientists have been telling us about for decades.
Compare this with Covid. People accepted that we were locked down because it was a crisis. The war in Ukraine also shows how well people in Ireland respond to a crisis, we have been excellent.
Our current systems are what got us into this situation, believing that we can continue to grow and expand without accepting we live in a finite world.
People are aware that things need to change but struggle with how big those changes need to be. It’s too late for the changes that would have been enough 30 years ago. Every day we delay, the changes we need are more dramatic.
We got an electric car back in 2009. The range was 50km and it got me to work in Limerick every day, and got me home most days.
When I started working in Shannon as a young lad from Cree I could get a bus there, and there were buses from all over the place bringing people to work. Now everyone travels in their own car.
We live in Cratloe and it’s not safe for a child to walk or cycle to school because of all the cars bringing children to school.
We need good public transport, ideally free. It would be great if we had a train station in Cratloe and you never needed to drive into Limerick, Ennis or Shannon.
We need to change the nation’s attitude to getting around. We need to walk if possible, cycle, then public transport and use a car as last resort, ideally an electric car. I know electric cars aren’t carbon neutral, but they’re better than petrol or diesel.
We don’t want to fly except in an emergency but we don’t want to give up living.
All the family love travelling in a camper van but I struggle with the notion of driving any distance in a diesel van.
We’ve ordered an electric van, and I’m working on fitting it out inside. I’ll put solar panels on the roof and battery storage.
We plan to get the ferry over to France and go where the notion takes us. The range of the van is about 300km and it will be interesting to see how it works out. The more people that do it, the easier it will be.
Food for thought
For years I have struggled to understand what is a sustainable diet and efficient use of land. It doesn’t make sense to grow food to feed animals and then eat the animals. It’s inefficient.
We tried to be vegetarian when the kids were younger but we struggled to have a balanced diet so ate some chicken and fish but no beef. A couple of years ago we did the vegan January and never looked back.
I’ve huge respect for farmers but they’ve been badly advised for a long time, going for an industrialised system.
Up until 1970 Ireland was a net importer of calories, then we were a net exporter until about 2000, and since then we are a net importer again.
Basically we are importing calories to feed animals. The more animals we rear in this country the less food there is in the world.
We see Ireland as a green food producer feeding the world but we import 80% of the food we eat. The current crisis in Ukraine shows how dependent we are on grain imports – fodder is more important than food.
When you look at the cost of fertiliser, the cost of inputs, the cost of using land for fodder, it doesn’t make sense. If farmers switched to organic farming, they’d see it does work.
The last oil fill
Everybody has to plan for the day when we get our last oil fill – it’s closer than any of us realise.
It upsets me that in the Celtic Tiger years, we wasted an opportunity. If we had built houses to a passive standard then, we’d need hardly any energy to heat them.
My daughter built a passive house at reasonable cost, and by paying attention to details, a 5 kW stove is all she needs for a few days in winter.
We have always tried to reduce our energy use. We never used home heating oil, heating our house mostly with timber. In a balanced world growing trees take in carbon and give it out when burned. Unfortunately our world is no longer anywhere near balanced so we have recently switched to a heat pump for heating.
We completely renovated our house to reduce its energy use in the last 10 years. We have had solar water heating panels on our house for the most of 30 years.
We have to tackle houses that are using too much energy. It’s a mix of individuals investing their own money and using government grants.
I’m on the board of Energy Communities Tipperary Cooperative (ECTC), supporting communities to avail of SEAI grants. The work we do is mainly for deep retrofits although not everyone is willing or able to do that, as it depends on your situation.
The challenge is to devise a process that supports people do a broader range than just the deep retrofit.
Many people are willing to invest and need to get reliable advice. As Mary Robinson said, we may have to spend our children’s inheritance to make sure they have something to inherit.
The fuel crisis and renewables
Unfortunately some people react to the current fuel crisis by saying we should reopen the turf power plants and stock up on coal in Moneypoint.
Our bogs are our Amazon, the industrial harvesting of peat is a climate disaster. The solution is to move quickly to renewables.
We’ve been a disgrace in being so slow to get offshore wind moving. In Moneypoint we have the largest grid connection in the country and we need to plug in quickly with offshore wind. It’s a steady, reliable source, and the technology is evolving quickly.
But we’ve about eight years of a carbon budget left, if we take 10 years to develop the regulations to allow offshore wind there’s no point. If we’re going to do it, we have to do it quickly.
Because of the economics, there’s no such thing as a small offshore windfarm but that means it’s efficient.
They may be visible but it amazes me that when it comes to our renewable energy supply that people can reduce it to a question of aesthetics.
When Moneypoint was being built I campaigned against the pylons going across the country to Dublin due to the electromagnetic radiation and strangely, no one objected to the sight of them.
The radiation dangers from pylons is worse than any physical dangers from wind turbines like flicker or noise.
When the sun shines
A group of us are trying to develop a 25 acre solar farm in Cratloe, fully community owned – that’s a challenge.
A company, Highfield Energy, started the development but it’s small, only 5MW, and it became less attractive for them.
Changes to the Renewable Energy Support Scheme auction favour 100% community-owned projects, and the original developer passed it over to us and is still giving us huge support.
We are now at the difficult stage of raising funding but it’s a long term investment and should give substantial returns to the community over many years. It also gives us control and ownership over our own power.
Photovoltaic (PV or solar) works best when you can charge the car, heat the water or whatever in the middle of the day when the sun is up.
In the future we might be able to have a virtual community power plant with flexible pricing where we could adjust demand up or down to when there is most renewable energy. This would include buying power off locals with solar panels.
Grounds for hope
A problem now is that the jump we have to take is so big, people find it overwhelming and can’t imagine doing it.
It’s hard to be hopeful that we can make sufficient changes to make a difference. For me, the only hope is in activity, to be doing what I can.
Irish people are great, we can change so quickly and we have a great capacity to learn and move on – look at things like gay rights.
There is no single solution – we have to do everything now, the big stuff, the small stuff and everything in between.
No major technological solution like carbon capture will come in the near future, although it might in time. We have to stop burning fossil fuels, reduce our consumption, start looking at slow fashion, re-use what we have and lots more.
The vast majority of emissions are created by the higher income earners with bigger cars, bigger houses and more lavish lifestyles, so they need to take it seriously.
Litter and waste separation gets a lot of attention – I once worked in weighing systems for bin lorries – but we sometimes miss the reason. It’s because we are using finite resources. We can get obsessed with the tidiness aspect.
My mother was a great woman and very involved in Tidy Towns in Cree. It’s wonderful how the Tidy Towns have evolved now where a key element is to respect biodiversity.
I would like to see us act as if it really is a crisis. It’s not that we have to go backwards and live how our grandparents did – although some of that would be an improvement – but that we have to change.
We can have better transport, better housing and better quality of life. We have choices, and the challenge is to make choices that make the world better.
It gives me hope when I see young and old moving out of their comfort zones to take on the challenges. The potential in Ireland is to be the greatest place in the world to live in.