Responding effectively to climate change is both urgent and long term. It is urgent in that our actions and responses in the next 5 to 15 years may effectively lock in large-scale and irreversible planetary changes over this and subsequent centuries. The December 2015 Paris Agreement sets the international agenda for addressing this challenge. However, it must be addressed at national and sub-national levels and by cities, businesses and communities.
The impacts of changes to the atmosphere on climate are well known. The accumulation in the atmosphere of relatively stable and inert gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), that trap energy is the key threat to our climate. In 2015, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide reached 400 ppm, a level that has not occurred for at least 800,000 years. It is one of the many changes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has described as unprecedented for centuries to millennia.
Climate change is primarily associated with the increase in the global average temperature. The average global temperature in 2015 was 1ºC higher than the pre-industrial levels. This record level follows three decades that were successively warmer than any preceding decade since 1850. However, about 90% of the additional energy trapped by greenhouse gases (GHGs) is being absorbed by the oceans. This is contributing to sea-level rise due to thermal expansion. On average, global sea level has risen by about 20cm in the last century.
Changes evident in Ireland have tended to follow the global average, with an average temperature increase of just under 1ºC over the last century. Since 1993, average sea level has risen around Ireland by just over 3cm per decade.
Ireland's Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Ireland’s GHG emissions increased in the period from 1990 to 2001 where it peaked at 71,394 kt CO2 equivalent, then plateaued to 2008, before displaying a downward trend. In 2014, total emissions of GHGs amounted to 58,254 kt CO2 equivalent, which is 18% lower than the peak value but still higher than 1990 emissions (non-Emissions Trading System base year for limits is 2005). In 2014, the energy sector accounted for 60.1% of total GHG emissions (of which transport accounted for 35% of this total), while agriculture accounted for 32.2% of GHG emissions.
In relation to the greenhouse gases; carbon dioxide (CO2) accounted for 63% of the total, with methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) contributing 23% and 12.0% as CO2 equivalent, respectively. Fossil fuel combustion is the principal source of GHG emissions. In 2015, total emissions were 16.83 metric tonnes (Mt) CO2 equivalent, which is a 25% reduction on 2005 levels. This is, in part, due to the economic crisis, which had a significant impact on construction activities. However, the increasing uptake of renewable energy in power generation also played an important role.
Land Use and Forestry
Land management has a key role in the response to climate change. Ireland has significant and healthy biosystems, including grassland, hedgerows and forests, which sequester or absorb carbon dioxide (CO2). Mineral soils and peat make up a large portion of Ireland’s land areas and have high carbon content.
Under the Kyoto Protocol, Ireland currently accounts for GHG emissions and removals associated with forest land, cropland and grazing land. Peatlands and wetlands are not yet included but constitute a major area of carbon-rich land that needs to be protected. Since 1990, Ireland’s forest area has expanded by approximately 260,000 ha. As these forests grow and mature, they will represent an important CO2 sink and long-term carbon store in biomass and soil. However, changes from grassland to arable land, in particular, can lead to significant CO2 emissions as a result of the disturbance of the soil. Low-impact management practices can mitigate such effects without significantly reducing productivity.
The management of peatlands is a particular concern with respect to potential for loss of carbon. Peat extraction and change of use of drained peatland to grassland or forestry leads to high rates of carbon loss. In general, land management should aim to preserve or enhance areas that have active carbon uptake in soils and biomass, and reduce or eliminate areas that are a source of carbon emissions. Such altered practices also yield benefits for ecosystem services.
Impacts of Climate Change in the Marine Environment
Rising sea temperatures and sea levels, and ocean acidification have been identified as some of the key stressors impacting on the state of the world’s oceans and coastal environments as a consequence of Climate Change. These three factors have the potential to seriously affect the functioning of marine and coastal ecosystems on global, regional and local scales.
Rising sea levels in combination with increased storm events that are also predicted to happen are likely to impact on many coastal habitats. An average sea level rise of 0.5 to 1m by the end of the century, in combination with storm surge events, could result in approximately 300 to over 1,000km2 of coastal lands around Ireland being inundated by the sea.
Over 70% of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) come from three sectors.
Climate change is challenging for Irish agriculture both in the context of greenhouse gas emissions and the need for adaptation of farming practices to be more resilient to the impacts of climate change. In Ireland the Agriculture sector was directly responsible for 32.2% of national Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emissions in 2014, mainly methane from livestock, and nitrous oxide due to the use of nitrogen fertiliser and manure management.
In addition, agricultural land management practices can lead to both emissions and removals of GHGs associated both with biomass and soils. Based on best available data, net impact of land management is dominated by a very significant emission of carbon dioxide due to drainage of organic soils. Although the total area involved is relatively small, at approximately 300,000 ha, the impact is large.
The average Irish household uses just under 50 kWh daily, of which 13 kWh is electrical energy. At a European level, Ireland’s household energy usage is the second highest, only below that of Finland. Ireland had the fourth highest rate of energy import dependency (85.3%) among the European Union (EU) Member States in 2014, mainly in fossil energy. This dependency is both expensive (€5.7 billion in 2014) and environmentally unsustainable, as energy use accounts for 60.1% of total GHG emissions in Ireland, mainly from transport, residential heating and electricity, and industry.
Transport was responsible for 19.5% of Ireland’s total GHG emissions in 2014. Transport emissions grew considerably between 1990 and 2007. By 2007, emissions were up to 180% higher than in 1990. However, the economic downturn meant that emissions from transport decreased by 25% from 2007 to 2012. Changes to emissions-based motor and vehicle registration taxes and the introduction of carbon taxes also had an influence on this reduction, as did EU emissions limits.
Fuel switching and increased use of renewable energy in electricity generation means that Ireland's (CO2) emissions intensity had reduced from a peak of over 12 tonnes per person to just over 8 tonnes per person in 2012. However, with a resumption of economic growth, transport emissions have started to rise again. Greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2, are projected to increase by at least a further 10% by 2020. This increase could be even higher, as it is based on an assumption that there will be 50,000 electric vehicles on the road and that the 10% renewable fuel use target has been met. There are currently only around 1,700 electric vehicles on the road, highlighting the scale of the challenges to be addressed in the transport sector.
What's Being Done?
National Legislation and Policy
The National Policy Statement on climate change sets out a transition to a competitive, low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050; based on: (1) an aggregate reduction in CO2 emissions of at least 80% (relative to 1990 levels) by 2050 across the electricity generation, built environment and transport sectors; and (2) an approach to carbon neutrality in the agricultural and land use sector.
Key provisions of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015 to meet international obligations and targets to 2020 and 2030 includes the preparation and submission to Government for approval of successive 5-yearly National Mitigation Plans. These will specify the policy measures to reduce GHG emissions in Ireland. The preparation of a National Adaptation Framework will reduce the vulnerability of the State to the negative effects of climate change and avail of any positive effects that may occur.
The Paris Agreement
In December 2015, a new global agreement was reached to address climate change. The agreement aims to: (1) hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above preindustrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C, (2) increase the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change, (3) make finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low GHG emissions and climate-resilient development.
To achieve this, GHG emissions must peak as soon as possible and then be reduced rapidly. The Agreement establishes a long-term adaptation goal of strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development in the context of the 2°C temperature goal. This makes it clear that, if mitigation activities succeed in limiting the rise in global temperature, less adaptation will be needed.
The Renewable Energy Directive which is incorporated into the EU 2020 Climate and Energy Package, requires Ireland to meet 16% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020. There are also specific national targets established under the National Renewable Energy Action Plan targets for electricity, transport and heating, for example that renewable energy should supply 12% of heating, 40% of electricity and 10% of transport energy requirements by 2020.
In 2014, renewable energy made up approximately 8% of energy used, mainly from bioenergy and wind power, which is some way short of our 16% target. Currently, 23% of electricity generation is from renewable sources (half of 2020 target): this has reduced annual energy imports by €255 million and avoided 2.6 Mt of CO2 emissions. Renewable energy also supplied 6.6% of heating requirements and 5.2% of transport energy requirements.
In 2009, a carbon tax was introduced at a rate of €15 per tonne on certain uses of fossil fuels. This has since increased to €20 per tonne and now applies to all fossil fuels, including coal and peat. The carbon tax is estimated to reduce emissions by about 0.3 Mt CO2 equivalent per annum. The intention of the carbon tax is to also encourage householders to significantly improve energy efficiency in their homes by availing of grants for better home insulation, and to upgrade their old oil or gas boilers to high efficiency condensing boilers.
The charging system for Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) and motor tax for private vehicles continues to promote the purchase of energy-efficient vehicles. In 2013, 61% of new purchases were in Band A (1–120 g/km) and 32% were in Band B (121–140 g/km). Whilst a successful policy from the perspective of CO2, this tax transfer did lead to higher environmental NOx and particulate emissions as consumers migrated to low-CO2 diesel cars. The potential impacts, on ambient pollutant levels and therefore human health, are becoming more clearly understood and must also be factored into policy development in this area.
The EPA has led on the development and co-ordination of climate change research in Ireland. The vision is to inform a carbon-neutral, climate-resilient Ireland by 2050. The approach has been to develop national capacity in co-operation with other state agencies and government departments. Since 2007, the EPA has supported over 108 climate change research projects to the value of €25 million. This investment has produced research that has been highly influential on national policy development, supported national engagement with EU and UN bodies and is estimated to have provided savings of €50m in relation to improved analysis of GHG emissions.
Official projections of GHG emissions to 2020 are based on two scenarios: (1) with current policies, regulations and incentives (i.e. With Measures, WM) and (2) with additional policies, regulations and incentives (i.e. With Additional Measures, WAM). Based on latest projections, Ireland is projected to exceed its annual limits in 2016. For the period 2014‑2020, agriculture emissions are projected to increase by 4–5%, while transport emissions are projected to increase by 10–12% on 2015 levels. Based on the two emissions scenarios described above, total emissions are projected to be 4% (scenario 1) or 6% (scenario 2) below 2005 levels in 2020. The target is a 20% reduction.
These projections are therefore a cause for significant concern in the context of the anticipated requirements for further reductions in GHG emissions in the period 2021‑2030. Failure to meet the 2020 target would make future compliance challenges more difficult and costly. In addition, Ireland is not on track for, or projected to be moving in the right direction, to meet its National Policy Position, which aims to achieve a least 80% reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
Further polices, regulations and incentives are therefore urgently needed to meet existing targets and to move to a pathway to achieve the 2050 objective. Increased strategic planning, investment and resources are also needed to achieve this in the overall framework of EU and global commitments.
Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation
Observed climate change impacts are most evident in the global temperature record, sea-level rise, loss of glaciers and ice-sheets and changes in the nature and intensity of precipitation events. These have impacted on human health, water resources and management systems, ecosystems, food production and rates and levels of coastal flooding. Global projections indicate that oceans will continue to warm, sea-level rise will continue during this century and sea-ice and glacier volumes will further decrease.
The character and severity of the impacts of climate extremes depend not only on the extremes themselves but also on exposure and vulnerability to these extremes. The effects of climate change are projected to further impact on food production systems, water resources, coastal infrastructure, critical services and urban centers, resulting in increased displacement of people, societal stress and loss of land and other assets. Ireland’s climate is changing in line with regional and global trends. Adaptation actions will be required to reduce adverse impacts and increase resilience to these and other impacts of climate change.
The first National Mitigation Plan and the National Adaptation Framework should provide the basis for the required transition to a low-emissions, climate-resilient economy and society, while meeting shorter-term emissions reduction targets. Ireland is vulnerable to weather extremes and sea-level rise. Its coastal assets, transport and energy infrastructure are also vulnerable. Their vulnerability has been exposed by recent weather extremes, which are expected to become more frequent over the coming decades.
Ireland also needs to play an effective part in contributing to EU and global efforts to ensure that the global temperature increase relative to pre-industrial temperatures stays well below 2ºC. Ireland is well positioned to provide leadership in key areas including the monitoring, reporting and verification of GHG emissions and removals from agriculture and land use. Coherent cross-government engagement in, and support for, strategic and effective local and global actions to address climate change is in Ireland’s interest.