Despite its comparatively small population, stalling efforts to tackle climate change mean Ireland contributes a disproportionate volume of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions
— While the UK has made progress in cutting its greenhouse gases, Ireland is set to miss both its domestic and EU targets. Failure to decarbonise difficult sectors, such as dairy farming and road transport, have left it with the third highest per-capita emissions of any member state.
This position has been acknowledged by Irish leaders, with taoiseach Leo Varadkar noting that Ireland was falling behind the rest of Europe on climate change in an address to the European Parliament in January 2018. He said he was “not proud” of his country’s record as a climate “laggard”. He later that year said Ireland is “nowhere near close” to meeting its climate goals.
Despite its recent performance, Varadkar has also said he wants Ireland to become a “global leader on climate action”.
This ambitious statement has been accompanied by a series of gestures intended to demonstrate the state’s commitment, including a pledge to divest its national investment fund from fossil fuels and the declaration of a “climate emergency”. However, with emissions still rising in key sectors, there are concerns of a mismatch between this stated intention and reality.
In a newly released “climate action plan to tackle climate breakdown”, Ireland’s leaders hope to put the nation onto the right path.
Here, Carbon Brief explores why progress has been so slow until now, and what needs to happen to get the country in line with its targets.
Is Ireland on course to hit its emissions targets?
As it stands, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has consistently stated that Ireland is “not on the right trajectory to meet longer term EU and national emission reduction commitments”.
After establishing its national policy position in 2014, the following year Ireland enacted its climate action and low-carbon development act, requiring a series of mitigation plans and adaptation frameworks towards achieving its long-term climate goals.
Specifically, these goals are to cut CO2 emissions by at least 80%, compared to 1990 levels, by 2050 from the electricity, building and transport sectors, and take an “approach to carbon neutrality in the agriculture and land-use sector”.
In its most recent annual review of the state’s progress towards its targets, government advisers at the Climate Change Advisory Council concluded that Ireland was “completely off course” and described future projections as “disturbing”:
“Instead of achieving the required reduction of 1m tonnes per year in CO2 emissions, consistent with the national policy position, Ireland is currently increasing emissions at a rate of 2m tonnes per year.”
With existing measures in place, the EPA projects an overall increase from current emissions levels of 1% by 2020 and 6% by 2030.
This scenario assumes that no additional policies are implemented (beyond those in place at the end of 2017), whereas a second scenario takes into account various future developments, including the implementation of the government’s national renewable energy action plan (NREAP), national energy efficiency action plan (NEEAP) and national development plan.
If the additional measures being proposed are implemented in full, the independent body projects that emissions will decrease by 0.4% by 2020 and 10% by 2030.
Commenting on its most recent figures, EPA director general Laura Burke said to meet both national and EU targets, Ireland “will need full implementation of those measures, plus additional measures in future plans”.
What about the targets set by the EU?
Ireland is one of the few member states expected to miss its EU emissions reduction targets for 2020 – and the one expected to miss by the widest margin.
Under the EU’s Effort Sharing Decision, member states must cut emissions of all greenhouse gases from sectors that are not included in the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). This covers some of Ireland’s most emissions-intensive sectors, including agriculture, transport and buildings, as well as waste and non-energy intensive industries.
Within this framework there are annual emissions limits for the period 2013-2020 to make sure states are moving gradually towards the target. Overachieving on these binding limits, as Ireland has done in previous years [see chart below], provides bankable credits that can contribute to compliance in later years.
Nevertheless, national projections by the EPA suggest the country will fall far short of the 20% reduction from 2005 levels that was required, with a drop of either 5% or 6% in the existing and additional measures pathways. As the chart below shows, without further proposals to cut emissions, Ireland is not on course to hit its 2020 EU targets until around 2040.
Past and projected Irish greenhouse gas emissions from sectors outside the EU ETS (dark blue line), compared to the country’s EU target (dashed yellow line). Projections under an “additional measures” scenario are shown with a dashed light blue line. Note the y-axis does not start at zero. Source: EPA
Eight EU nations in total are expected to miss their 2020 targets. However, while six of those states will be able to close the gap by carrying forward surplus “annual emission allocations” from previous years, Ireland and Malta do not have enough. This means they will have to rely on “additional flexibilities”, such as purchasing allocations from other nations or using international credits. Without such measures, after 2020 Ireland could face fines of up to €600m a year until it is back on track.
Climate action minister Richard Bruton has said the cost of purchasing credits will be around €150m, to pay for the state’s excess 16m tonnes of carbon emissions.
While accepting that his country is “nowhere near” meeting existing EU targets, Varadkar told the Dáil [lower house of Irish parliament] last year that he hopes Ireland can meet the EU reduction targets for 2030.
However, given the latest EPA projections this too could prove difficult. The EU’s Effort Sharing Regulation (successor to the Effort Sharing Decision) requires Ireland to cut its non‐ETS emissions by 30% on 2005 levels by 2030.
The EPA estimates that Ireland will exceed its carbon budget over the 2021-2030 period by 52-67 millions of tonnes CO2 equivalent (MtCO2e). Even if the state makes use of the additional flexibilities provided under the Regulation, which allow it to use successes in the ETS, land-use and forestry sectors to pay off its shortfall, it is still on course to overshoot by 7-22MtCO2e.
Reports ahead of the government’s new climate action plan said that the expected overrun of emissions targets, combined with the rising cost of carbon credits, could leave Ireland facing fines of €7bn by 2030.
What are the key sectors driving Irish emissions?
Greenhouse gases are on the rise in most sectors, driven by strong economic growth and relatively low fuel prices, according to the EPA.
Its most recent report concluded that emissions from agriculture will continue growing steadily for the next decade, largely thanks to Ireland’s expanding dairy herd. Transport is also set to continue growing as a polluter, with emissions from cars and freight expected to rise until at least 2022, even in a scenario involving relatively high fuel prices and electric vehicle uptake.
The EPA also notes that with fossil fuels, such as coal and peat, still playing a key role in the nation’s emission profile, decisions about their role will be “a key determinant” in Ireland’s future climate impact. A longer term reduction in emissions is expected to be largely the result of replacing these fossil fuels with renewable power sources, mainly wind.
Irish emissions from key sectors since 1990. Source: EPA
With a highly dispersed population reliant on individual oil-fired boilers for heating, decarbonising this sector poses another challenge. The International Energy Agency has stated that despite efforts by the government to switch Irish heating to renewable sources, such as biomass, it is unlikely to reach its target of 12% renewable heat by 2020.
Independent government climate advisers at the Climate Change Advisory Council have described the recession as the only factor in recent history that has reversed Ireland’s upward emissions trend. Upon the release of its annual review, the council’s chairman Prof John FitzGerald noted that by 2016 emissions were back at levels that had last been seen when the economy crashed in 2009.
What action has Ireland been taking to tackle climate change?
While overall progress on cutting emissions has been slow, the past couple of years have seen a flurry of action as the government scrambles to reverse current trends.
The nation’s first national mitigation plan, adopted in 2017, was intended as “an initial step to set us on a pathway to achieve the level of decarbonisation required”. The plan was criticised for its lack of new policies and former climate action minister Denis Naughten subsequently said that it needed an overhaul. However, he also noted there had been “a fundamental shift in the approach of the government” to climate change, highlighting spending commitments to illustrate his point.
With Varadkar’s target of becoming a “climate leader” ahead of them, Irish ministers prepared a national development plan named Project Ireland 2040 that included €21.8bn set aside for climate action. According to Naughten upon the launch of the programme in summer 2018, this means “well over €1 in every €5 [of public investment] is to be spent…on climate mitigation and adaptation”.
Following the successful implementation of a citizens’ assembly that led to the overturned abortion ban in 2018, the assembly moved onto its next major societal challenge: climate change. A group of Irish citizens was established to investigate “how the state can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change”, with its findings published in April 2018. (A similar model has recently been proposed for the UK by the Extinction Rebellion protest group.)
Shortly afterwards, Ireland made headlines when it said it had become the first country in the world to divest from fossil fuels. In practice, this means its national investment fund will sell an estimated €300m of shares in coal, gas and oil companies. The move was billed by politicians as a strong message that Ireland is serious about transitioning to a cleaner energy system.
Responding to the recommendations emerging from the citizens’ assembly, as well as the “stark warning” contained in the recent special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a cross-party Committee on Climate Action was subsequently convened.
Its findings were published in April. It contained more than 40 recommendations, including five-year carbon budgets to be devised by a new “Climate Action Council”, superseding the existing Climate Change Advisory Council and modelled on the UK’s Committee on Climate Change.
Other proposed measures include a higher carbon tax [see below], a comprehensive strategy to curb farm emissions and a target of net-zero emissions for Ireland by 2050. The report also recommended Ireland should support an increase in the EU’s existing 2030 emissions target.
This report for the Oireachtas [Irish parliament] was “accepted and endorsed” by the Dail without a vote, along with an amendment that included the declaration of a “climate and biodiversity emergency” for Ireland. This made it the second nation in the world to do so, after the UK.
Given the uncertainty around what such a declaration means in practice, some politicians emphasised the need to back it up with policies. When the similar-sounding “climate emergency measures bill” to ban oil and gas exploration in Ireland was proposed by socialist People Before Profit politicians last year, it was rejected by the government in a move described as “total hypocrisy”[see below].
In the aftermath, Hildegarde Naughton from the ruling Fine Gael party, who is also chair of the Climate Action Committee, said the declaration of emergency was “an important statement…[but] now we need action”.
How important is agriculture for Ireland’s GHG targets?
Farming has dominated Ireland’s emissions for decades. As it stands, agriculture – particularly cattle farming – accounts for roughly a third of all Irish greenhouse gas emissions and their volume is still rising every year. Unless measures are taken to cut these emissions, the EPA does not expect them to level out until 2030.
This growth is the result of a booming Irish dairy and beef industry. Two thirds of all the land in Ireland is devoted to agriculture. Meanwhile, the government’s Food Harvest 2020 strategy has called for a 50% boost to milk production, as well as 20% added to the value of the beef sector. An expanding herd means rising levels of methane produced in the animals’ digestive systems, in addition to nitrous oxide from fertilisers and manure applied to the soil.
Responding to climate concerns, Thomas Cooney, chairman of the Irish Farmers’ Association’s (IFA’s) Environment and Rural Affairs committee declared in April that “Irish agriculture is the only sector that has a plan”. Specifically, he referred to the Committee on Climate Action’s report, which recommended that last year’s “climate roadmap” produced by Teagasc, the Irish agriculture authority, be implemented by the government.
Within that strategy there are 28 measures to cut emissions, ranging from improved breeding strategies to new fertilisers. Dr Gary Lanigan, head of greenhouse gas research at Teagasc, tells Carbon Brief that mitigation measures in the strategy will only achieve a 7% cut in emissions, with land-use changes to enable greater carbon storage doing a lot of the work:
“This assumes a linear uptake in measures over the reporting period [2021-2030]. Higher uptake rates would result in higher mitigation for some measures, such as altered fertiliser type – however others, such as improved genetics, are incremental by their nature. In general, measures which reduce nitrogen can be front-loaded. Those that impact methane cannot as they are based on incremental increases in efficiency. If you combine the agriculture and land-use sectors, all measures from agriculture and land use reduce the combined sectoral emissions by 15-17%.”
Notable by its absence is explicit instruction from the committee on a carbon tax on agriculture, something hinted at by Varadkar and recommended by the citizens’ assembly report. Instead, the report acknowledges the complexity of the proposals, while noting farming is “by and large a low margin business” and emphasising the need for a “just transition”:
“The committee thus recommends that the Standing Committee on Climate Action should address this issue and seek to explore appropriate and effective mechanisms of greenhouse gas pricing, including through emissions trading taking into account the various challenges associated with applying a carbon price in this sector.”
The agricultural community has opposed such measures. Farmers have argued that despite the strain cattle farming is putting on the country’s overall greenhouse gas profile, it is preferable to produce beef and dairy in Ireland than elsewhere. One EU study found the grass-based systems employed in Ireland produced the lowest emissions of any member state for dairy, at 1kg of CO2 per kg of milk. It also produced the fifth lowest emissions per kg for beef, according to the study. Given this situation, Cooney said a carbon tax would only push production to less carbon-efficient nations in South America.
Why are transport emissions rising?
Unlike some of its European neighbours, emissions from transport in Ireland have been tightly coupled with its growing GDP since 1990. Rising numbers of cars on the road have pushed transport emissions up, overtaking electricity generation and making it one of the highest polluting sectors.
Ireland has a dispersed population that is highly reliant on private transport to connect its network of small towns and villages. According to James Nix, director of freight and climate at the NGO group Transport and Environment, there have not been sufficient measures to limit greenhouse gases from existing vehicles or to replace them with alternatives. He tells Carbon Brief:
“For example, no electric buses have been bought for any of Ireland’s cities, with Ireland now falling far behind many Eastern European member states in this regard, including Poland and Romania, for example.”
Instead, the focus has been on buses and trucks that run on gas as a greener alternative to diesel, but Nix points to analysis by his organisation that suggests leakage of methane from such vehicles means their beneficial climate effects are minimal. “Electric is a better option. Action – particularly on electric buses for Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway – is long overdue,” he says.
Electric cars, meanwhile, have also failed to take off in any significant way in Ireland, with sales below the EU average. Transport minister Shane Ross has announced that by 2030 all new cars and vans will be zero-emissions, with a target for 800,000 electric cars on the road by 2030. There were just over 3,500 in 2017.
Reliance on cars to get around much of rural Ireland was highlighted by both the cross-party climate committee and the citizens’ assembly as a major issue that needs to be addressed. Nix tells Carbon Brief the country lacks effective land-use policies to “sequentially extend towns and villages” so as to maximise access to public transport.
The proportion of new homes built last year in areas that are not served by public transport – known as “one-off housing” – was 25%. During Ireland’s period of rapid economic growth in the early 2000s, when around half a million new homes were built, this figure was closer to 40% each year.
How much of Ireland’s electricity comes from renewable sources?
Slow progress in transport means Ireland is unlikely to meet its legally binding EU target for 2020 of sourcing 16% of its overall energy needs from renewables. However, rapid development of the nation’s renewable electricity sector means it is not too far off and will be approaching 14% by the deadline.
The share of Ireland’s electricity generation taken up by renewables was just over 30% in 2017, according to data published by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) at the end of last year. This marked a 7.3% reduction in CO2 emissions from that sector on the previous year.
While Ireland may trail behind other European nations for other sectors, this proportion is not far off the UK, where renewables supplied 34% of electricity last year.
This achievement was largely due to increased generation from wind, which accounted for 84% of all renewable electricity in 2017. New figures revealed by the Irish Wind Energy Association at its spring conference in March show 2018 was another record-breaking year for the nation’s wind power. At 29% of electricity demand, Ireland now has the second highest share of wind-generated power in the EU, outstripped only by Denmark.
Chart showing the breakdown of electricity generation in Ireland since 2005. Source: SEAI
Despite these successes, upon announcing the latest figures for 2017, SEAI chief executive Jim Gannon said in an accompanying press release that this progress was still insufficient to meet Ireland’s targets, noting that “we need to take greater advantage of the renewable resources available to us here in Ireland”.
In March, Bruton announced a revised target that would see 70% of electricity generation coming from renewables by 2030, in line with the Committee on Climate Action’s recommendation and up from the previous target of 55%. While this echoes calls from industry, analysis by Cornwall Insight Ireland suggested that on the current trajectory the nation is likely to fall short of its new goal.
In the meantime, fossil fuels – particularly gas – still remain a crucial component of electricity generation. However, Ireland has pledged to phase out coal power by 2025, by closing its only coal-burning electricity generation plant at Moneypoint on the west coast.
What role does a carbon tax play in Ireland?
The Irish carbon tax is currently €20 per tonne of CO2 (in addition to the EU ETS, which applies to power stations and industrial plants). It is applied at the point of sale when anyone buys fossil fuels, including coal, diesel and peat. However, the Committee on Climate Action’s report recommended increasing this tax to €80 per tonne by 2030.
Carbon pricing in Ireland has proved controversial. The government’s decision not to raise the carbon tax level in the 2019 budget was criticised by those scrutinising Irish climate action. However, such an increase, which supporters say will encourage cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, has faced criticism. Leftwing parties People Before Profit and Sinn Fein have argued it will not change people’s behaviours as planned, but will instead place undue pressure on poorer Irish people.
The mass protests sparked in France by the government’s decision to raise taxes on petrol and diesel have added fuel to the debate over Ireland’s carbon tax.
However, analysis published by the Economic and Social Research Institute in October concluded that even though fuel poverty is an important issue in Ireland, doubling the existing tax would have a “modest” impact on ordinary people while reducing the country’s emissions by 5%.
Varadkar confirmed in March that when the next budget is announced in October his government will announce plans to quadruple the current tax by 2030, in line with the committee’s proposals. He stated the plan is “not about punishing you in the pocket or raising revenue for government”, adding that money would be returned to people by way of tax credits or other measures.
What approach is Ireland taking to its remaining oil and gas reserves?
Even as national money is being withdrawn from gas and oil investments, Ireland still has fossil fuel reserves of its own that have been the subject of scrutiny in recent years. Since the 1970s, there have been four commercial gas extraction projects off Irish coasts, but the industry’s future has been called into question.
At the beginning of 2018, a majority in the Dail voted to support a climate emergency measures bill that would prohibit the licensing of any more fossil fuel exploration. If passed into law, the bill would make Ireland the fifth country in the world to ban oil and gas exploration.
Since then, despite receiving cross-party support, the bill has stalled, with the government arguing it would make Ireland reliant on oil and gas imported from abroad. This mirrors the debate taking place in the UK, where Conservative ministers have argued in favour of fracking to reduce dependence on foreign gas imports.
Ireland currently imports all of its oil and a third of its gas, the majority coming from the UK. After releasing a report highlighting this dependence, the Irish Offshore Operators’ Association also noted the potential disruption to these supplies following Brexit.
Nevertheless, after a year of delays, a vote in the Dail saw the bill proceed to select committee stage in April, moving it one step closer to becoming law.
What role could Irish peatlands play in tackling climate change?
Contained within the government’s mitigation plan was a commitment to phasing out the use of peat for heating by 2030 and looking into eradicating peat-powered electricity plants as well. Together with coal, the EPA says peat is still a major contributor to emissions from the power sector, making them “a key determinant in influencing future emissions trends”.
Peat has been used for centuries in Ireland as a readily available replacement for more conventional carbon-based fuels, such as coal and gas. Large quantities are still burned today to generate heat and electricity. Formed from decayed plant matter, peat forms bogs that are highly effective sinks, storing carbon from the atmosphere for thousands of years.
This means that peat’s status as a replacement fossil fuel in Ireland has been damaging on two counts. Not only does burning it for electricity emit more CO2 while producing less energy than coal, its extraction leaves behind damaged bogs that continue to release greenhouse gases.
The peak of peat’s contribution to the Irish power mix came in the 1960s, when it provided 40% of the nation’s electricity. Growing awareness of its implications for climate change has contributed to a decline in recent years and by the end of 2019 the government will stop subsidising the industry for good. Nevertheless, even while making up just 8% of electricity generation in 2016, it was still responsible for 20% of emissions from the power sector.
Bord na Mona, the company supplying Ireland’s remaining peat as well as running power stations, has pledged to cut its supply by a third by 2020 and to stop harvesting peat completely by 2027. It plans to shift its business to biomass instead.
What impact will climate change have on Ireland?
Ireland is already beginning to feel the effects of climate change, with six of its 10 warmest years occurring since 1990. The average temperature in Ireland has risen by approximately 0.8°C since the beginning of the 20th century. There has also been an increase in annual rainfall in northern and western regions.
As part of its national policy position, the government has launched an adaptation strategy that lays out how the island nation will deal with the challenges ahead. It says these include not only disrupted weather patterns, but also increased acidity in Irish waters and greater vulnerability to flooding. The National Adaptation Framework (NAF) predicts direct damages from flooding of roughly €1.15bn per year by 2050 without appropriate adaptation measures.
Citing the highly destructive storms Ophelia and Eleanor as examples of extreme weather linked to climate change, minister Naughten emphasised the need for preparation after launching the strategy last year.
Dr Barry O’Dwyer of University College Cork, who has developed Climate Ireland as a resource for understanding future impacts, says the risk of severe storms and sea level rise are particularly pertinent considering Ireland’s main population centres are based around the coasts. He tells Carbon Brief:
“Planning for climate change is a significant challenge with limited action to date linked with a lack of real political will. However…this appears to be changing and this is reflected through the publication of the climate action and low carbon development act and for the specific purposes of planning for adaptation, the national adaptation framework, [which] places a statutory requirement on government departments, state agencies and local authorities to develop local and sectoral adaptation strategies by September 2019.”
What is the government’s new ‘climate action plan’?
Noting that the 2017 national mitigation plan was “by its own admission…not a complete roadmap”, Bruton gave a speech in November last year announcing an “all-of-government plan” to tackle climate disruption.
After weeks of delays, the plan was released on Monday, and includes more than 180 actions drawing on previous guidance from the Oireachtas climate change committee in a bid to bring Ireland back in line with its national and EU targets.
The plan still needs to be passed by the cabinet, but includes several policies that have already been floated by ministers. The most significant measures in the strategy include:
- A move towards 70% renewable electricity by 2030, supported by a scheme allowing people to sell renewable electricity produced on their own property to the national grid.
- A focus on retrofitting 500,000 homes, with an option for homeowners to pay for improved energy efficiency via higher property tax or electricity bills.
- An effective ban on the installation of oil boilers in new homes from 2022, and gas boilers from 2025, through the introduction of new regulatory standards for home heating.
- The installation of 400,000 heat pumps in homes and businesses.
- The consideration of a car scrappage scheme in 2020 and expansion of charging infrastructure to help get 950,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2030. New petrol and diesel car sales will stop in 2030.
- Granting local authorities the power to restrict access to certain areas to zero-emissions vehicles only.
- A shift to low-emission buses, including electric buses, with no diesel-only purchases from 1 July 2019, as well as measures to encourage public transport use, such as expanded park-and-ride facilities.Several proposals previously highlighted by Teagasc for driving down emissions relating to agriculture and land use feature in the plan. These include increased afforestation, better management of peatlands and changes to livestock management.
- As previously suggested, the carbon tax will rise to “at least” €80 per tonne by 2030.
- Other taxation changes flagged for consideration include equalising duties on petrol and diesel, changing vehicle registration and motor tax.
To help Ireland reach its long-term emissions targets, the plan suggests a series of five-year carbon budgets between 2021 and 2036, as well as an expanded climate action council to provide oversight along with the Oireachtas committee. Every public body will be issued with a mandate to prioritise climate action and the entire plan will be underpinned by a new “climate action act”.
Current emissions projections do not take this plan into account, but the EPA anticipates that it will inform its next round of projections. According to the government’s press release, its climate action plan puts the nation on a trajectory to meet its 2030 emissions targets, which in turn is “consistent with achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050”.
The release also includes a hint that Ireland will soon follow in the UK’s footsteps, committing to evaluating the changes needed to achieve the net-zero target by 2050. It states that “in the new climate action act, we will include a 2050 target in law”.
by Josh Gabbatiss | Carbon Brief