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Irish performance on climate change 'very poor', says major EPA report

The Environmental Protection Agency today launched its State of the Environment report.

File image of an Irish landscape.
File image of an Irish landscape.
Image: DPA/PA Images

THE QUALITY OF Ireland’s environment is “not what it should be”, according to a new report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It also says that the outlook is not optimistic unless policy efforts are ramped up and integrated into a national framework.  That’s according to the latest State of the Environment report, a document published every four years by the EPA.

The EPA is an independent public body responsible for environmental research and enforcing environmental law in Ireland.  

The report, the seventh in the series, provides a comprehensive look at the current state of the environment in Ireland, across key areas like climate, air and water quality, waste and agriculture.  

Micheal Lehane, the director of the EPA’s office of environmental assessment, said the report has three main messages.

These are: 

  1. The need to establish a national environmental policy position
  2. Full implementation of current environmental policies already in place
  3. Establishing a greater link between the environment and health 

Lehane said at a briefing before the report’s publication: “If we had a full national environmental policy position, it would mean that you would have a much greater chance of the sum of all the different parts really adding up to a much more coherent whole.” 

He added that if all policies currently in place were fully implemented, it would “go an awful long way” to addressing the current environmental problems facing the country.  

EPA director general Laura Burke said: “Environmental issues and challenges such as climate change, air quality, water quality and biodiversity cannot be looked at in isolation, as they are complex, interconnected and need to be tackled in an integrated way.”  

Challenges

The extensive 450-page report highlights climate and biodiversity as two of the key issues to be addressed in Ireland. It says that environmental indicators are going in the wrong direction in many areas.  

The report also outlines the challenges facing the environment in Ireland over the next decade.  

These include stopping any further deterioration of the natural environment, accelerating action to decarbonise and green the economy, and starting to restore habitats and water bodies lost over time. 

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key sections explored in the detailed report. 

Climate change 

Slowly but surely, political consensus has begun to converge around the fact that climate change is, as the EPA notes, “the defining challenge for this century”. 

In Ireland, “a marked escalation in social awareness and public engagement” on the issue has been central to this shift in the political debate.

Last year, the government published its Climate Action Plan, “an important step,” the EPA says in reaching national and EU climate goals. 

However, when it comes to tackling the causes of climate change — greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the form of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — the EPA grades the country’s current performance as “very poor”. 

climate Source: EPA

Overall, Irish GHG emissions have increased by over 10% since 1990.

Under an “existing measures scenario” — which assumes that no additional policy measures are implemented “beyond those already in place by the end of 2018” — the EPA forecasts total Irish emissions to decrease by 6% over the next decade. 

Under an alternative scenario —  which assumes implementation of an additional suite of government policies adopted after the end of 2018 — emissions are estimated to decrease by one-quarter by 2030. 

Agriculture is the single largest contributor to the overall GHG emissions at 35.3%, followed by transport, energy industries and the residential sector, at 20.3% 15.8% and 10.9%, respectively.

Across the latter three categories, emissions are forecast to decline over the next 10 years if politicians do nothing other than enforce existing measures.

ghg Source: EPA

That is not the case with agriculture. Unless additional policy solutions are found, emissions from agriculture are set to increase by 3.5% over the next 10 years.

With additional measures, a reduction of 11.5% by 2030 is possible, the EPA believes. 

According to the report, emissions from agriculture have increased since 2011 with an overall peak observed in 2018. 

One major source of these emissions is a general increase in the amount of Irish dairy cows. 

“In the last 10 years,” the report highlights, “dairy cow numbers have increased by 38.3% with a corresponding milk production increase of 66.9%”, as a result of the government’s Food Wise 2025 plan for Irish agri-food and the removal of EU milk quotas in 2015. 

shutterstock_424459801 Source: Shutterstock/Studio Peace

Overall, Ireland is unlikely to meet its 2020 EU emissions targets and the report casts doubt on whether government policies enacted before the end of 2018 will be enough to achieve more long-term goals. 

“Ireland’s 2030 target is to reduce GHG emissions by 30% compared with 2005 levels, with annual limits ensuring the required downwards trajectory to 2030,” the report highlights. 

However, according to the EPA’s latest projections, only with the full implementation and adoption of the government’s Climate Action Plan can those longer-term targets be met.

Air pollution 

The report says air pollution is the “single largest environmental health risk in Europe”. 

The three main sources of air pollution in Ireland are:  

  • Emissions from burning of solid fuels in homes
  • Transport emissions from vehicles in urban areas
  • Ammonia emissions from agriculture

Emissions from the use of solid fuels like coal and peat continue to add to localised high levels of particulate matter and PAH during the heating season, the report says.

PAH is polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, a type of chemical naturally occurring in coal. Particulate matter (PM) is all solid and liquid particles found in the air, some of which are harmful.  

“The most recent year’s data for particulate matter show exceedances of the WHO guideline values throughout the country,” the report says.  

It adds that the latest estimates from the European Environment Agency (EEA) show there is an excess of 1,300 premature deaths due to poor air quality in Ireland each year. 

In terms of other emissions, Ireland exceeded the emission limit of 65 kilotonnes of nitrogen oxide in 2010, but was compliant in the years after, up to and including 2018. 

Current projections show the nitrogen oxide emissions exceeding the reduction commitment for 2020, but complying in 2030 if the 2019 Climate Action Plan is fully implemented.  

nirgoen Source: EPA

The country is on track to comply with both 2020 and 2030 reduction commitments for sulphur dioxide.  

Transport is the principal source of nitrous oxide emissions, contributing to approximately 41% of the total in 2018. The vast majority of these emissions come from diesel and petrol from private cars and trucks. 

Although nitrous oxide emissions have been on a downward trajectory since the 1990s — owing to heavy EU regulation and technological changes —  the EPA notes that “recent increases in the size of the national vehicle fleet and moves towards diesel engines have limited further improvement”. 

According to the most recent figure, the national fleet of licensed vehicles increased by over 3% from last year to 2.2 million in March 2020.

Emissions of ammonia, a gas with a distinct smell, are tied back to agriculture in Ireland, with 99% of emissions stemming from this sector.

Ireland exceeded the ammonia limits between 2016 and 2018, and is further expected to exceed limits in 2020 and 2030 without further measures in place.  

The report said there is “an immediate requirement” to implement abatement measures at farm level such as low-emission manure spreading techniques.

It said that tackling the sources of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter is the key challenge for Ireland over the next decade. 

Water quality  

Overall, the quality of Ireland’s surface water resources -  rivers, lakes, estuaries and nearshore coastal waters – is under severe pressure due to human activities. 

Extremes in water temperatures and flows caused by more extreme weather as a result of climate change are likely to exacerbate the damage caused by underlying water pollution, the report says.  

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As a whole, water quality has essentially gotten worse in Ireland, despite different actions taken to reverse this.

surface water bodies in bad condition graph Source: EPA

Almost half of the surface water bodies in Ireland are failing to meet the water quality objectives set by the EU water framework directive, due to pollution and other human disturbances. 

The number of the most pristine rivers has also fallen from over 500 to just 20 over a 30-year period. 

Groundwater, which is the source of drinking water for around one-quarter of people in Ireland, is described as being of good quality in general.  

The top three big pressures on the health and quality of water in Ireland are:  

  • Agriculture
  • Hydromorphology (physical changes) 
  • Urban wastewater

pressures on aquatic environment Source: EPA

Waste 

It’s not news that the Irish economy has gone from bust to boom and back again over the past decade. Naturally, increased economic activity and improving fortunes have put pressure on waste management infrastructure. 

Although the EPA notes that Ireland is line to meet its legislative targets for waste collection, recovery and recycling, and diversion from landfill, significant issues have appeared in the four years covered by the report. 

Published in September, the government’s Waste Management Plan for a Circular Economy puts a stronger emphasis on waste prevention than previous policies.

But meeting future targets for recycling and treatment could prove tricky, the report notes. One issue is the sheer volume of waste our economy produces. 

food waste Source: EPA

In 2018, Ireland produced 14 million tonnes of waste across all economic sectors and households, up from around 12 million tonnes in 2014. 

Some 6.2 million tonnes of waste relating to construction and demolition (C&D) work were collected in 2018. 

This is “up significantly”, the report notes, from the 4.7 million collected in 2017 and the 3.3 million collected in 2014, during the last downturn. 

The EPA notes that it’s possible that by 2028 up to 7.5 million tonnes of C&D waste will be collected.

This uptick will in part be fueled by the government’s €116 billion capital infrastructure spending programme, Project Ireland 2040, “which will result in significant growth in the construction sector”. 

Generation of municipal waste — “household waste and commercial waste that is similar in nature to household waste” — has increased by 15% since 2015. 

“Challenging to manage and treat because of its varied nature and composition”, in 2018, we produced close to 3 million tonnes of the stuff — 53% from households and 47% from commercial sources.

In 2018, one-third of municipal waste was exported for treatment. This over-reliance “poses a risk to the State in the event of export markets closing at short notice.” 

The EPA recommends that contingency landfill capacity needs to be “secured without delay”.

“Ireland has reached a plateau in relation to waste management” particularly with regard to packaging and municipal waste recycling rates,” the report notes.

So while we’re on track, the watchdog warns that meeting future targets could prove tricky.

The full EPA State of the Environment report was published today with further details available on the agency’s website. 

About the author:

Ian Curran and Orla Dwyer

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