Climate change is the most significant and challenging environmental issue currently facing the world. Climate change is caused by warming of the climate system by enhanced levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases due to human activities. Measurements of carbon dioxide (CO2) at Mace Head on the west coast of Ireland show that concentrations of this gas have reached 400ppm. The atmospheric concentrations of (CO2) and the other main greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, now far exceed the natural range over the last 800,000 years.
Climate change is most associated with the long term increase in average global temperature. It is also evident in rising sea-levels, loss of ice cover and other changes. If not addressed, climate change presents a very serious risk of dangerous and effectively irreversible climate impacts at global and national levels. Food production systems, ecosystems and low lying areas are particularly vulnerable. Ireland also faces a range of negative impacts such as coastal flooding, more intense and frequent rainfall and associated flooding. Consequently, future investment decisions at national, regional and local levels must incorporate actions to address both the causes and consequences of climate change by reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and planning for future climate conditions and adaptation.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions peaked in 2001 and have been largely on downward trend since. Carbon dioxide (CO2), the most important greenhouse gas, dominates Ireland's emissions profile making up about 64% of the total in 2012. These emissions are largely from power generation, heating and transport which use a veriety of fossil fuels. Fuel switching and increased use of renewable energy in electricity generation means that Ireland's (CO2) emissions intensity has reduced from a peak of over 12 tonnes per person to just over 8 tonnes per person in 2012. The EU average is just over 7. However, Ireland's per capital emissions of all greenhouse gas emissions is about 13 tonnes in 2012 which is among the highest in the EU. This is due to the relatively large contribution of emissions from the agriculture sector relative to other EU countries.
The effects of the enhanced greenhouse gas levels are most evident in the temperature record. For Ireland the average temperature has increased by 0.8ºC over the last 110 years and there is also some evidence of a change in rainfall characteristics and patterns. These trends are reflected in ecosystem changes, with a longer growing season and greater numbers of warmer latitude wildlife evident in Ireland and its surrounding waters.
Future impacts of climate change in Ireland will be both direct and indirect, resulting from spill-over from impacts in other parts of Europe and the rest of the world. Projected negative impacts in Ireland include:-
- more intense storms and rainfall events
- an increased likelihood of coastal and river flooding
- changes in the distribution of plant and animal species
- the possible extinction of vulnerable species and ecosystems
Over 71 per cent of Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions come from three sectors.
Agriculture remains the largest single source of emissions, representing 33.3 per cent of total national emissions in 2013, despite emissions from agriculture falling to below their 1990 level in recent years. Agriculture emissions were 0.6 per cent higher (0.13 Mt CO2 eq) in 2013 compared with 2012. The most significant driver for the increase in emissions in 2013 is increased use of synthetic fertiliser and higher animal numbers.
It is notable that this sector has recorded an increase in the last two years. This increase is underpinned by higher animal numbers with, for example, dairy cows 2.0 per cent higher in 2013 compared with 2012. This reflects national plans to expand milk production under Food Harvest 2020 and following removal of milk quota in 2015.
The energy industries accounted for 19.3 per cent of total national greenhouse gas emissions in 2013. Emissions from Energy (principally electricity generation) decreased by 11.1 per cent (1.42 Mt CO2 eq) in 2013. This reflects a decrease in coal and peat used in conventional fossil fuel fired power stations for electricity generation, by 16.4 per cent and 9.5 per cent respectively, and also a decrease in natural gas use of 8.3 per cent in 2013.
Electricity generated from renewables increased by 6.6 per cent between 2012 and 2013. The changes in renewables are a result of additional installed wind capacity, higher co-firing of biomass at peat power plant and CHP plants, and low rainfall in 2013.
There was also a significant increase (+220 per cent) in electricity imported through the interconnectors which represents 8.7 per cent of total final consumption of electricity. The emissions associated with imports are not included in Ireland’s greenhouse gas inventory estimates.
Transport and Industry
Transport is responsible for 18.8 per cent of total national emissions. Between 1990 and 2013, emissions from Transport showed the greatest overall sectoral increase at 116 per cent. Transport emissions have decreased by 23.1 per cent below 2007 peak levels primarily due to the economic downturn, improving vehicle standards due to the changes in vehicle registration tax and the increase use in biofuels.
However, in 2013 there was a 2.1 per cent increase (0.23 Mt CO2 eq) in emissions which is the first increase since 2007. This is underpinned by increased diesel use while petrol use continued to decrease.
The industry and commercial sector is responsible for 15.4 per cent of total national emissions. Combustion emissions within the industrial sector grew by 1.3 per cent in 2013. There was an 8.0 per cent decrease in emissions from the commercial services sector mainly due to a reduction in oil use and an increase in biomass use. Emissions from the cement sector (process and combustion) declined by 2.2 per cent in 2013, whereas emissions from industrial gases (F-gases) increased by 12.4 per cent.
What's Being Done?
National Climate Change Policy
The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill was published in January 2015. The Bill provides for the approval of plans by the Government in relation to climate change as part of the transition to a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy. In addition, the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government published a National Policy Position, in April 2014. The aim of the National Policy Position is to bring clarity and certainty to the national low-carbon transition objective for 2050.
Compliance with EU and International Commitments
The greenhouse gas emission inventory for 2013 is the first year that compliance under the European Union’s Effort Sharing Decision will be assessed. This Decision sets 2020 targets for sectors outside of the Emissions Trading Scheme (known as non-ETS sector emissions) and annual binding limits for the period 2013 to 2020. Ireland’s target is to reduce non-ETS emissions by 20 per cent by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. The main sectors covered by the 2020 targets are agriculture, transport, residential, waste and small businesses.
Ireland’s provisional 2013 greenhouse gas emissions for non-ETS sectors are 43.1 Mt CO2 eq. Agriculture and Transport accounted for 71 per cent of total non-ETS emissions in 2013 and both showed an increase in emissions. However, initial estimates indicate that Ireland will be in compliance with its 2013 Effort Sharing annual limit.
In relation to international commitments, 2013 is also the first year of the second commitment period (CP2) under the UNFCCC Kyoto Protocol (the Doha Amendment). Ireland’s compliance will be assessed in 2022, and is based on its greenhouse gas inventory submission to the UN for 1990 - 2020 data.
EU Emissions Trading Scheme and Greenhouse Gas Emissions
The EPA has been given the responsibility for implementing the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) in Ireland which typically covers around 100 of Ireland’s largest installations. These include sites operating in the power generation, cement, lime and oil refining sectors as well as large companies in sectors such as food & drink, pharmaceuticals and semi-conductors. Irish participants in the ETS reported 7 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions for 2013 than in 2012. Emissions from the power generation sector fell by 11.5 per cent. Cement industry emissions decreased by 4 per cent, while Food and Drink sector showed an increase in emissions of 4 per cent.
Since 1990 renewable energy use has increased accounting for 6.8 per cent of the primary energy requirement in 2013. Ireland has abundant renewable energy resources in wind, water, geothermal and biomass. These sources offer sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions and our dependency on imported fuels, which accounted for 89 per cent of our energy needs in 2013. Ireland’s target under the EU Renewable Energy Directive is a 16 per cent share of gross final energy consumption by 2020 with separate targets for contributions of renewable energy in electricity (40 per cent), transport (10 per cent) and heat (12 per cent). In 2013, Ireland was approximately half-way towards meeting each of these targets.
The carbon tax, introduced in 2009, was a policy instrument specifically designed to encourage and accelerate fuel switching away from carbon-intensive fuels such as petrol, diesel, and home heating oil. In 2013, the carbon tax was extended to two of the most carbon intensive fuels (peat and coal) on a phased basis. The intention of the carbon tax is to also encourage householders to avail of grants for better home insulation, and to upgrade their old oil or gas boilers to high efficiency condensing boilers.
Achieving emission reductions in the transport sector will involve a range of policies and measures to support technological solutions and behavioural change. In 2008, a new system for assessing private cars for Vehicle Registration Tax (VRT) and Annual Motor Tax (AMT) was introduced for new vehicles purchased. This switched vehicle taxation to emissions instead of engine size and, in so doing, had a significant impact on consumer purchasing patterns. In 2013, the share of new cars in the lowest emitting bands (A&B) was 94 per cent.
In relation to biofuels in transport, the Biofuels Obligation Scheme places an obligation on suppliers of fuels to ensure that 6 per cent (by volume) of petrol and diesel that is sold in Ireland is produced from renewable sources e.g. ethanol and biodiesel. However, greenhouse gas emissions from transport increased in 2013 for the first time in five years. This illustrates the challenges associated with achieving long-term emission reductions from this sector particularly in the context of economic growth.
The Climate section of the EPA Research Strategy 2014-2020 is framed by the vision of Ireland’s transition to a carbon-neutral, low emission and climate-resilient society and economy by 2050, and being a source of climate change information and solutions. The goal is to enable an effective research programme that is practical, solutions-focused, and strategic.
Globally, climate change impacts are projected to increase in the coming decades and during the rest of this century. Uncertainties remain in relation to the scale and extent of these impacts, particularly during the second half of the century. The greatest uncertainty lies in how effective global actions will be in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Ireland will meet its Kyoto Protocol commitments, which is to limit emissions in the period 2008 to 2012 to 13 per cent above 1990 levels. In relation to other targets, the 2020 EU Effort Sharing target commits Ireland to reducing emissions from those sectors that are not covered by the ETS (e.g. transport, agriculture, residential) to 20 per cent below 2005 levels.
EPA projections indicate that we will breach our annual obligations from 2016 onwards in the best-case scenario.
Meeting the 2020 targets will therefore require reduction measures in all sectors, but particularly in the agriculture and transport sectors. It is essential that Ireland reduces its dependence on fossil fuels while ensuring that very significant increases are achieved in the use of alternative energy sources (wind, ocean, biomass and others).
Considerable improvements in energy efficiency will also be required. The role of research will be crucial, particularly with regard to examining all possible options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and transport.
To avoid significant adverse climate change impacts over the coming decades, a concerted approach involving both adaptation and mitigation is required with mainstreaming of climate change issues into future investment decisions.
The EPA aims to be a leader in the climate debate in Ireland, by providing up-to-date scientific information to a range of audiences, from policymakers to the general public. The intention is to keep the public informed on the latest news, research and events in the climate change area, not only in Ireland but internationally, and to answer common questions about climate change.