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Covid-19 drives biggest drop in Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions since global financial crisis

The country’s emissions fell by almost 6% last year.

Image: Shutterstock/savva_25

AN ENVIRONMENTAL ANALYSIS has found that Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions fell by almost 6% last year, largely due to the impact of Covid-19 restrictions.

Estimates by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) show that emissions reduced by 5.9% in 2020 compared to 2019 levels.

The reduction was due to significant changes in energy-related emissions, particularly in the transport and residential sectors, which the agencies have attributed to new living and work practices brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The transport sector saw the biggest decrease, due to lengthy periods of restrictions on movement between and within counties.

Emissions from the sector in 2020 are estimated to have dropped by more than two metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent compared to 2019, a fall of almost 17%.

Between December 2019 and November 2020, petrol consumption was estimated to be down by 27% and diesel consumption was estimated to be down by 15% compared with the previous year.

Jet fuel consumption, which is not counted as part of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions, was also around 80% below 2018-19 levels from when the restrictions began in March. 

In the energy sector, estimates by the agencies indicated a drop of 14% – or around 1.3 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent – compared to 2019.

Although pandemic measures played a part in this, the EPA and SEAI pointed to a fall in the amount of electricity produced using coal and peat and an increase in the use of renewables as factors behind the decrease.

However, while emissions across the commercial, public services and industry sectors are estimated to have fallen as a result of less economic activity last year, emissions from the residential sector rose by 9%, due to a greater number of people working from home.

The environmental agencies also attributed this increase to low prices for home heating fuel, particularly in the early part of the year, pointing to an 18% rise in kerosene sales compared to 2019.

Agriculture emissions are also expected to have risen slightly as a result of increased fuel and fertiliser use on farms.

The estimates are based on monthly indicator data, allowing for earlier estimation of emissions than the more comprehensive annual data used by the EPA to produce Ireland’s Greenhouse Gases Inventory.

The overall reduction in emissions is comparable to that seen following the global financial crisis in 2008, and is the biggest drop since Ireland exited the crisis in 2011.

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However, the EPA and SEAI warned that the economic rebound from the Covid- 19 crisis could bring emissions back to previous levels unless additional action is taken.

These include moving away from fossil fuels for heating and transport, building lower-energy buildings and making ‘greener’ choices on an individual level – such as on travel and avoiding food waste. 

EPA Director General Laura Burke noted that Ireland’s economy was at a pivotal point and highlighted how the steps taken to recover from Covid-19 will shape the next decade.

“While these early estimates show a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 as a result of Covid restrictions, this level of emission reductions, at a minimum, will be required annually,” she said.

“Ireland needs a green recovery to rebuild our economy, generate new jobs and respond to climate change.”

She added that last year’s emissions reductions must be used as a springboard to achieve substantial reductions every year to ensure future climate targets can be met.

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