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Dramatic fall in Ireland's transport pollution as we undertake 'natural experiment'

Since Covid-19 restrictions came into force the use of planes, trains and vehicles have all dramatically fallen.

A Garda vehicle on an almost deserted section of the M50 motorway.
A Garda vehicle on an almost deserted section of the M50 motorway.
Image: PA Images

POLLUTION FROM CARS has dropped by 50% across Ireland since the start of the lockdown laws, research has shown.

The amount of private cars on the roads have dropped by more than 85% since the restrictions began.

Researchers at Marine and Renewable Energy Ireland (MaREI), a research centre in energy, climate and marine at University College Cork (UCC), has revealed the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on Ireland’s energy-related pollution levels.

Since Covid-19 restrictions came into force the use of planes, trains and vehicles have all dramatically fallen.

The analysis examines Ireland’s pollution levels prior to lockdown measures and compares it with those levels during lockdown.

Among the findings is that pollution from cars has dropped by 50%, but air pollution from solid fuel burning has not changed.

In Ireland, the average commuter spends 28.2 minutes driving to work, equating to around an hour per day. That means for every week Ireland is in lockdown, people will reclaim five hours that would have otherwise been spent in their car.

The energy we use for transport accounts for about 40% of Ireland’s energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions from private cars are nearly twice the amount of flights.

Travelling to work and school accounts for over a third of the journeys taken by Irish people each year.

Each week the school run requires Irish parents to drive a seven million kilometres in total, emitting an estimated of 1,200 tonnes of CO2 emissions. That is equivalent to the annual driving of about 400 cars.

During this time of significant remote virtual working, electricity has become our primary source of energy, providing power for office work, lighting and entertainment.

The research illustrates that every day is the weekend, as electricity usage patterns now replicate a weekend demand profile seven days a week.

The analysis shows that the demand for electricity has seen a decrease of between 5% and 10% over seasonal expectations since early March as a result of the Covid-19 measures.

Meanwhile, nine out of 10 flights have been cancelled since restrictions commenced, and if flight restrictions continue, it would be the equivalent of switching off the State’s largest electricity generating station at Moneypoint, in Co Clare for six months, the research shows.

In Ireland, flights are responsible for 3.3 million tonnes of CO2 emission every year, which is the equivalent of one car driving 363,000 laps of the planet.

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The World Health Organisation estimates annual deaths of 1,500 per year are attributable to outdoor air pollution in Ireland.

Data from the European Environment Agency (EEA) has shown how concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) — a pollutant mainly emitted by road transport and to a lesser extent electricity generation — have decreased in many European cities.

NO2 has been linked to increased levels of lung conditions ranging from asthma and bronchitis to respiratory-related hospital admissions and emergency room visits.

The Environmental Protection Agency has reported a decrease in concentrations of up to 50% of nitrogen dioxide at many monitoring stations across the National Air Quality Monitoring Network.

UCC researcher Dr James Glynn said: “Covid-19 lockdown measures across the globe are creating a natural experiment for climate and energy researchers to observe how extreme demand scenarios can drive large scale fossil fuel demand destruction and collapse oil market prices.

By exploring the impact these restrictions are having on Ireland’s pollution levels, we are also seeking to understand feasible actions to mitigate climate change. We need to make long-term, equitable and sustainable changes to our lifestyles, to our economy and to our energy system.

“Climate change mitigation is a marathon event requiring rapid and sustained steady changes in how we consume energy.”

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Press Association

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