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Ireland at risk of breaking carbon budget limit as emissions fell only 2% last year

Staying within the first carbon budget will require an “extremely challenging annual reduction” of 12.4% in 2023, 2024 and 2025.

LAST UPDATE | 14 Jul 2023

IRELAND’S EMISSIONS FELL only 2% in 2022, according to the latest assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency, raising alarm bells about whether the country can stay within legally-binding emissions ceilings between now and 2025.

Carbon budgets signed into law last year which allocate a certain amount of emissions that Ireland must stay within in order to meet overarching targets and help thwart the climate crisis are at risk of being overshot unless significant changes are made.

47% of emissions allowed under the first five-year cycle were used up in 2021 and 2022, leaving 53% for 2023, 2024 and 2025.

Emissions were higher in 2021 than 2020 and dropped only 1.9% in 2022. The weak result means that the coming years will require an “extremely challenging annual reduction”, the EPA has warned, with drops of 12.4% in 2023, 2024 and 2025 now needed in order to stay within the carbon budget.

In the electricity sector, an annual reduction of 17% is now required over the next three years to stay within budget, while industry, agriculture, residential buildings and transport need to make annual reductions of 9%, 8%, 7% and 5% respectively.

Reducing emissions of greenhouse gases that trap heat inside the atmosphere is necessary to prevent global temperatures from rising and to maintain some stability in Earth’s climate systems.

Already, climate change has already caused “substantial damages” and an increasing level of “irreversible losses” to ecosystems, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Ireland has signed up to national and international obligations to fight climate change, with key targets of cutting emissions in half by 2030 compared to 2018 and reaching net zero by 2050.

However, despite some progress, many indicators still suggest that Ireland is moving much too slowly.

The EPA’s new report on Ireland’s emissions from 1990 to 2022 shows that Ireland exceeded its annual limit on emissions last year under an EU measure called the Effort Sharing Regulation, even though emissions fell in most sectors.

Energy emissions decreased by 1.8%, even in the face of a 2.1% rise in electricity demand. That reduction was driven by a fall in the use of coal, oil and peat for electricity generation but sullied by the highest gas usage in the country since 2010.

EPA 2022 Emissions Breakdown by Sector Source The sources of Ireland's emissions in 2022 Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency

The agriculture sector cut its emissions by 1.2% with the help of a 14% decrease in the use of nitrogen fertilisers, though the number of dairy cows rose for the 12th year in a row, with increases also seen in other cattle and sheep.

Residential emissions decreased by 12.7%, which the EPA attributes to the impact of higher fuel prices, the smoky fuel ban, and milder weather.

Emissions from land use, land-use change and forestry dropped by just half a percentage point. The sector’s main source of emissions comes from grasslands on organic soils that have been drained for agricultural production, the EPA said.

Travelling in the wrong direction, the transport sector saw emissions jump 6% last year – though the figure was 4.6% lower than the 2019 pre-pandemic level. The EPA noted that overall higher transport activity from private cars and freight transport is eroding the impact of electric vehicles.

International aviation emissions are not included in the national emissions figures but were found to have increased by 130% last year.

EPA Director General Laura Burke welcomed the overall reduction in emissions but cautioned that it must be accelerated to comply with the carbon budgets.

“An overall emissions reduction is welcome, and it is encouraging to see the impact of action across key economic sectors,” Burke said in a statement.

“Drivers for this reduction were higher fossil fuel prices and associated behavioural change, more renewable energy, and the impact of regulation such as the nationwide ban on smoky fuels in home heating,” she said.

“While welcome, this decrease in emissions needs to be significantly ramped up. We need faster progress on the actions set out in national climate action plans to decarbonise and transform all sectors of Ireland’s economy, to stay within national carbon budgets and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030.”

Programme Manager Mary Frances Rochford said that “current decarbonisation actions are being outpaced by increased energy demand across the economy and dependence on fossil fuels for energy generation”.

“A significant increase in transport emissions in 2022 highlights the fact that a growing economy, with high employment, will continue to produce emissions if we do not break the link and decouple emissions from increased activity by using cleaner and alternative sources of energy.”

‘Only the beginning’

Responding to the EPA report, Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan said that “we do need to see our emissions fall at an even faster rate but this decrease remains a significant achievement given our expanding economy and our growing population”.

The minister said that the increase in transport emissions was expected as people returned to workplaces after Covid-19 restrictions lifted but that further progress must be made in speeding up the switch to public transport, walking and cycling.

“We will continue to revise our climate plans to ensure that we scale up and speed up our actions. This is going to be good for the country, good and is a vital necessity as we are see global temperatures meet unprecedented levels.”

The Climate Change Advisory Council, an independent body tasked with advising the government on climate change, said the figures show that at the mid-way point of the first carbon budget, Ireland is not on track to achieve its emissions targets.

Chairperson Marie Donnelly said that the “best performing sector – residential buildings – is delivering benefits on the ground through the retrofitting of cold damp homes and eliminating harmful heating fuels which have high levels of greenhouse gas emissions”.

“Emissions levels in this sector also respond to temporary factors such as weather conditions and energy prices and it is vital that the implementation of policy protects the most vulnerable from this volatility. The structured and focussed approach in this sector is seeing an uplift in the delivery of skills and is supporting the creation of new jobs. Government funding is essential to this success and needs to be continued,” Donnelly said.

“In other sectors, Government must implement policies that will deliver sustained and systemic change, that are not adversely impacted by external or societal developments. While transport emissions dropped during Covid, they rebounded because there were not active policies in place to maintain low emissions levels. Investment and support is needed now, to incentivise a switch to public transport and an uplift in active travel.

“Movements in gas and electricity prices have laid bare our dependence on harmful fossil fuels which are a root cause of supply instability and higher levels of emissions. It is urgent that Government sets out more detailed implementation plans for each sector to ensure a focused effort and continual monitoring of progress.”

Stop Climate Chaos coordinator Sadhbh O’ Neill said the report puts “into stark relief the job that Ireland has ahead of us to do our fair share and get our polluting emissions down to net zero”.

“While the limited progress reported today is welcome, this is only the beginning of what ought to be an unprecedented national effort – a national drive to zero emissions,” she said.

“However, the reported overall reductions mask worrying increases in the use of gas in power generation (up 12.6% since 2021). The next climate action plan will have to be much more ambitious with new and innovative policies to drive down polluting emissions, including a moratorium on new data centre connections.”

She said the rising emissions in the transport sector are the result of “a half century’s underinvestment in public transport and cycling infrastructure” and that turning the sector around will “require decisive and transformative actions by the transport agencies and local authorities to reduce travel demand”.

“While progress is being made with new public transport services, these are not nearly enough to bend the emissions curve and trigger a big modal shift away from private car use. While rates of EV ownership are rising, clean technologies will not fix the climate on their own, especially if emission reductions are being offset by bigger and heavier cars and SUVs,” she said.

“We need our elected representatives to show bold leadership in fast-tracking socially fair transport policies by reallocating road space in urban areas away from cars and parking to public transport, shared mobility and active travel as a matter of urgency.”

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