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Ireland’s emissions challenge and post COVID-19 recovery

One of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant economic ‘deep freeze’ it has resulted in has been a large reduction in harmful emissions.  Globally harmful Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions are projected to fall by 8 per cent in 2020, the biggest fall in absolute terms than any other year on record.  This reduction while welcome is only temporary.  The challenge is to ensure that investment in our recovery also supports progress to our climate commitments.  
The International Energy Agency (IEA) in its Global Energy Review 2020 is projecting an annual decline in carbon emissions of 8 per cent in 2020 with renewable energy sources showing the only growth in 2020.  However the IEA notes that we are likely to soon see a sharp rebound on carbon emissions are economies begin emerging from lockdowns. 

We need policies to support and build on the environmental gains we are seeing. The experience of previous crises, including the 2008 Great Recession, shows that temporary drops in emissions have been more than compensated by stronger growth of emissions in the following years.  This will be particularly challenging for Ireland.  Ireland was the second-worst performing European Union (EU) country on climate change in 2019, an improvement of one place since 2018[1].  We had failed to implement the essential policy measures needed across all sectors to put Ireland on a pathway to meeting our 2030 targets and playing our part in keeping global warming below 2 °C.

Chart 1: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Ireland’s output versus Europe 2020 Targets

Source: Eurostat

Chart 1 tracks Ireland’s progress over time in relation to our Europe 2020 emissions reduction targets.  The closest Ireland came to our targets was in 2011-2012, during the economic recession.  The Environmental Protection Agency noted at the time that Ireland’s reduced emissions resulted from reduced economic activity, not from any policy success, and has since noted that emissions continue to increase in line with economic growth, highlighting a complete failure at a political level to implement policies to de-couple emissions from economic trends.  We must not allow this to happen again and any recovery package must put our economy and our society on a more sustainable footing. 

Chart 2: Greenhouse Gas Emissions EU 2017

Source: Eurostat

Chart 3: Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Agriculture, 2006-2017

Source: Eurostat

Charts 2 and 3 above give an overview of Ireland’s emissions compared to the rest of the EU.  The data shows that we are one of the highest greenhouse gas emitters in the EU, and that we have the highest levels of emissions from Agriculture.  This data reveals just how difficult it is going to be for Ireland to transition to a low carbon future, and puts the lack of ambition in the Climate Action Plan into context.

The latest report on our greenhouse gas emissions shows negligible change from 2017 with a decrease recorded of just 0.2 per cent [1].   The latest data from the EPA shows that emissions from agriculture increased by 1.9 per cent, driven by the increase in the national dairy herd and corresponding increase in milk production.  In fact emissions from agriculture have increased annually since 2012 as a result of the Foodwise 2025 policy of agricultural expansion and the abolition of milk quotas in 2015[2].  Emissions from the transport sector increase by 1.7 per cent, an emerging trend from 5 of the last  years which should be a cause for concern.  Decarbonising our transport network will require significant investment.  Emissions in the energy sector decreased by 11.7 per cent in 2018 driven by a decrease in coal use in electricity generation and an increase in wind generated electricity.   Despite improvements in some sectors the overall trend is at odds with our national ambition outlined in the Climate Action Plan.  Such policy incoherence at national level is unacceptable, particularly when agriculture is the single largest contributor of Ireland’s total greenhouse gas emissions (accounting for one third).  The Agri-Food Strategy to 2030 must reflect our national climate ambitions and outline a pathway for emissions reductions from agriculture to 2030 with annual targets. 

The EPA points out that Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase in line with economic growth and employment trends in the energy, agriculture and transport sectors and that Ireland is headed in the wrong direction to meet our national climate policy goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050.  In 2016, the EPA recommended that Government implement measures to decarbonise the transport and energy sectors and ensure policy coherence between agricultural output targets and environmental ones.   Government has clearly not taken heed of these recommendations. 

While the environmental implications of not meeting our emissions targets are obvious, there are also significant economic implications as a result of not meeting our EU 2020 targets. The Climate Change Advisory Council in its annual review notes that the use of public funds to buy emissions allowances in order to comply with our 2020 EU targets provides no domestic benefit, imposes a current cost on the Exchequer, and leaves the country with an even bigger task to meet our future targets to 2030 and beyond[3].  As a member of the EU, Ireland has committed to legally binding emissions reduction targets in 2020 and 2030.  We have committed to a 20 per cent reduction on 2005 emission levels by 2020, and a 30 per cent reduction of emissions compared to 2005 levels by 2030. Ireland will not meet the 2020 target and we are certainly not on a trajectory to make our 2030 targets.  This has very serious implications for our environment, our society and our economy.  

Our international Commitments

Ireland is one of 195 countries who signed the first legally binding global climate deal at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 (COP21) with the aim to keep global warming below 2°C by 2100. The 195 countries who signed up agreed:

  • A long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels;
  • To aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C, since this would significantly reduce the risk and the impact of climate change;
  • To come together every five years to set more ambitious targets as required by science;
  • To provide continued and enhanced international support for adaptation to developing countries.

This climate deal is is due to come into force in 2020. Despite signing up to this legally binding international commitment in 2015, countries have been slow to act.  A report by the United National Environment Programme published last November (the annual Emissions Gap Report[4]) found that unless global greenhouse gas emissions fall by 7.6 per cent each year between 2020 and 2030, the 1.5°C goal (which 195 nations pledged to in the Paris Agreement 2015) will be out of reach before 2030.  This gives us an indication of the challenge we face, particularly in light of the IEA Global energy Review projecting an 8 per cent decrease in emissions in 2020. Crucially, the report says all nations must substantially increase ambition in their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), as the Paris commitments are known, in 2020 and follow up with policies and strategies to implement them.  This requires an enormous concerted global effort over the next decade. Ireland must be at the forefront of this effort.  Implementation of policies outlined in the Climate Action Plan to reduce our emissions must begin now. 

Some policy proposals:

  • The new Government should put clean energy technologies at the heart of their plans for economic recovery.  Investing in those areas can create jobs, make economies more competitive and steer the world towards a more resilient and cleaner energy future[5].
  • Any additional financial supports or bailouts for fossil fuel industries should be conditional on these industries developing a measurable plan of action to transition towards a net-zero emissions future.
  • Set ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030 and ensure sufficient resources to support implementation of these targets.
  • Develop a progressive and equitable environmental taxation system.
  • Develop a new National Index of Progress encompassing environmental and social indicators of progress as well as economic ones.


The Climate Action Plan[6] was published in June 2019 recognised that Ireland must significantly step up its commitments to tackle climate disruption and it contained sectoral targets and a governance framework for policy development and implementation.    Unfortunately it lacked the ambition and focus of the proposals of the report by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action and a more determined effort will be required to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement.   The increased incidence of flooding and other severe weather events are evidence of the impact that climate change and changing weather patterns are having on Ireland.  It exposes the vulnerability of many of our services, communities and utilities and failure to act now will only result in greater expense late[7]r.

What we must do is build upon the emissions reductions as a result of COVID-19 and implement an ambitious new deal for our environment, society and economy.  We will return to what a Green New Deal for Ireland might look like in the coming weeks.