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Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions fell less during the pandemic than in the previous year

Emissions from Ireland in 2020 failed to stay within the allocation set by the EU.

IRELAND’S GREENHOUSE GAS emissions fell less last year than they did in 2019 despite a large decrease in emissions from the transport sector during the pandemic.

Transport emissions fell by a significant 15.7% in 2020 as people travelled less during Covid-19 restrictions.

However, the overall reduction was lower than it was the previous year and fell short of staying within EU limits.

A new report by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released today found that Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 3.6% in 2020, “which, although significant, is 0.4% less than the reduction seen in 2019”.

Emissions from transport and peat-fuelled electricity generation decreased but agricultural and residential emissions rose.

As a result, Ireland did not stay within its annual EU emissions allocation for 2020 and instead exceeded the allocation by 6.7 million tonnes (Mt).

Additionally, it exceeded the total allocation under the Effort Sharing Decision, which set targets for EU member states between 2013 to 2020, by more than 12 Mt.

Within weeks, the government is due to publish a new Climate Action Plan that will set out how it intends to cut emissions in half by 2030, as well as a carbon budget that will allocate limits to specific sectors.

Internationally, world leaders, climate scientists and NGOs are preparing to attend COP26 in November, an international UN convention where countries will negotiate climate agreements.

The scientific consensus is that there needs to be deep and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the planet from warming by more than 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius.

Any further rise in temperatures beyond that level is expected to cause devastating consequences around the globe.

The largest sectoral reduction in emissions last year was in transport, which the EPA attributed to lockdown measures, followed by peat-fuelled electricity generation, which decreased by 51%.

“That’s the largest emission reduction we’ve seen in [the transport] sector historically in a given year and it’s very directly associated with the lockdown measures,” EPA Senior Manager Stephen Treacy told The Journal.

The fall in peat-fuelled electricity generation coupled with a 15% increase in wind generation meant emissions from the energy industry were 7.9% lower than the year before.

In contrast, agriculture emissions – which have risen by 12% over the last 10 years – increased by 1.4%, or 0.3 Mt.

The EPA report said the 2020 increase was driven by additional use of fertiliser nitrogen and higher numbers of dairy cows, other cattle, sheep and pigs.

“In the last 10 years, dairy cow numbers have increased by 45.5% with a corresponding milk production increase of 60.3%. This reflects national plans to expand milk production under Food Wise 2025 and the removal of the milk quota in 2015,” the report outlined.

“In the same 10-year period sheep numbers increased by 21.9%, pigs by 9.7% and poultry by 25.9%.”

In homes, emissions rose by 9% (0.59 Mt), which Treacy said is likely partly because of people working from home and partly due to low fuel prices.

The report outlined that “within the different fuels used in household space and water heating, increases were seen in coal, peat and kerosene by 6.0%, 3.2% and 19.3% respectively, with natural gas use the only fuel declining in 2020 by 0.3%”.

“Monthly deliveries of kerosene in March to May 2020 showed increases of over 80-140% on 2019, driven by exceptionally low prices of kerosene at that time.”

It said the trends in residential emissions indicate a need for more energy-efficient retrofitting to achieve future reduction targets.

“We don’t think Covid is the solution to our climate problems – the overall reduction in emissions was less than 4% and for the Climate Act target for the 51% reduction by 2050, you’re talking about emission reductions in the order of 7% per year – but it does teach us something,” Treacy said.

It shows us that if you aren’t driving, it does reduce emissions. It’s clear that there is a future for measures such as working from home, active travel and so on that reduce emissions.

“In terms of the residential sector, our houses have to become more efficient and we have to move to renewable heating sources, because otherwise, when we do work from home and don’t travel, emissions will [still] go up,” he said.

The EPA’s findings show that in the 1990s, Ireland’s emissions were rising year-on-year, which Treacy said happened alongside rapid economic growth.

“What was happening was the economy was expanding, the population was increasing, there was significant energy demand growth, we hadn’t renewable energy in any great degree, and our power stations were still old. The resulting impact was that the link was not broken between economic growth and energy growth,” he said.

However, even as that economic growth continued in the early 2000s, emissions started to decrease in the years before the recession.

“From 2000 up until the start of the recession in 2008, we don’t see that sustained [increase], even though the economy continued to grow. That was a time where we saw more efficient power stations and lots more renewables coming in.

“We continued to grow and yet the emissions didn’t go up,” he said.

Emissions increased in 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2018, but declined in 2013, 2014, 2017, 2019 and 2020.

“To reduce emissions while continuing to have a functioning economy, it means doing things differently,” Treacy said, such as switching to electric vehicles and renewable energy sources.

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In a statement, EPA Director General Laura Burke said that the “limited reduction in emissions during 2020, at a time of profound change to economic and social activity due to the Covid-19 pandemic highlight the scale of action needed across all parts of our economy and society to meet the 51% emissions reduction by 2030 set within the 2021 Climate Act”.

“Urgent action is also necessary to avoid a growth in greenhouse gas emissions during post-Covid economic recovery.”

A joint report by the EPA, Met Éireann and Marine Institute in August found that Ireland’s greenhouse gases were at their highest in 2019 of any recorded level.

Measurements of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that were taken at Mace Head in Galway in 2019 were the highest level that has been measured in Ireland.

It concluded that there is clear evidence that global climate changes mean Ireland has become “warmer and wetter”.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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