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 Katowice climate package agreed at COP24 provides the details that are needed to make the Paris Agreement operational.
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 and in 2017 it was 405 ppm a new record high. 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 2018 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 70,475 kt CO2 equivalent, before displaying a downward trend to 2014. Emissions have increased by 3.7% and 3.5%, respectively in the years, 2015 and 2016 and decreased by 0.9 per cent in 2017. In 2017 total national GHG emissions amounted to 60,744 kt CO2 equivalent, which is 9.6 per cent higher than 1990 emissions.
In relation to the greenhouse gases; carbon dioxide (CO2) accounted for 64% of the total, with methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) contributing 23% and 11.0% as CO2 equivalent, respectively and F-gases contributing 2 per cent of the total as CO2 equivalent. In 2017, the energy industries, transport and agriculture sectors accounted for 72.4% of total GHG emissions.
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 33.3% of national Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emissions in 2017, 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.
In 2017 the average dwelling consumed a total of 17.8 MWh of energy - 74% from direct fuel use and 26% from electricity. The average Irish household uses 48 kWh daily, of which 12.7 kWh is electrical energy. At a European level, Ireland’s household energy usage ranks 17th of the EU 28. Ireland had a high rate of energy import dependency (88%) among the European Union (EU) Member States in 2015, this has decreased to 66% in 2017 as indigenous energy production in Ireland has increased driven by natural gas production and increased renewables. Energy import dependency is both expensive and environmentally unsustainable, as energy use accounts for 60% of total GHG emissions in Ireland, mainly from transport, residential heating and electricity, and industry.
Transport was responsible for 19.8% of Ireland’s total GHG emissions in 2017. Transport emissions grew considerably between 1990 and 2007. By 2007, emissions were up to 182% higher than in 1990. However, the economic downturn, improving vehicle standards and an increase in biofuels use meant that emissions from transport decreased by 16.7% from 2007 to 2017.
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 7.9 tonnes per person in 2016. However, with a resumption of economic growth, transport emissions have started to rise again.
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 2017, renewable energy made up approximately 10.6% of energy used, mainly from bioenergy and wind power, which is some way short of our 16% target. Currently, 30.1% of electricity generation is from renewable sources (relative to the 40% target for 2020): this has reduced annual energy imports by €278 million and avoided 4.1 Mt of CO2 emissions. Renewable energy also supplied 6.9% of heating requirements and 7.4% 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 2018, 69% of new purchases were in Band A (1–120 g/km) and 23% 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.
EPA Research Programme
Under the 2014-2020 EPA Research Programme, the EPA funds research in Climate under its Climate Pillar Themes:
Theme 1: Carbon Stocks, GHG Emissions, Sinks and Management Options
Research under this thematic area is focused on the development of analysis of carbon stocks, sinks/removals and GHG emissions and removals. The annual National Inventory Report on GHG emissions and removals is a key user and driver of the research focus for this thematic area. Research has primarily been targeted at enabling Ireland to move from use of international default values in the inventory (Tier 1) to use of national data (Tier 2) and national systems models (Tier 3) analysis. This is essential as the national inventory is central to policy development, and assessment of its implementation, in meeting targets. It is therefore critical to ensure that it captures activities and processes in an effective manner that informs and enables policy and, specifically, the NMP. This research is therefore informed by national, EU and UN review processes.
A secondary focus is the development of independent top-down analysis of GHG emissions and removals. This is based on utilisation of advanced observation systems and modelling systems to determine emissions and removals. These top-down analyses can be used in combination with the bottom-up inventory data to enhance understanding of emissions and removals. These systems can also provide more detailed temporal and spatial data, which are of particular interest for dispersed emissions/removals, such as those from agriculture and land use. Development of these systems can assist in policy development and decision making. The work carried out also feeds into the development of IPCC Good Practice Guidelines and emissions factor databases, which are used globally for emissions inventory development.
Fundamental science it is not the central driver of research in this area; however, this area does encompass issues such as the carbon and nitrogen cycles and localisation of certain Earth systems models.
Theme 2: Ireland’s Future Climate, its Impacts, and Adaptation Options
Research in this area is designed to examine how global climate change has impacted on, and is impacting on, Ireland, as well as to examine projected changes in Ireland’s climate as a result of ongoing global changes. This is essential for understanding how climate change may impact on Ireland over the course of this century. In order to understand climate change, it is essential to understand past climate variables. This has been a key area of research. It has involved research on indicators of climate change, including changes in ECVs, as identified by the World Metrological Organization (WMO), and analysis of these based on instrumental and pre-instrumental records and archives.
A central feature has been the development of high-resolution climate models and climate projections for Ireland. These are based on downscaling of global climate models and the development of regional climate modelling capacity in Ireland, including with Met Éireann. This allows for the ongoing development of impacts and vulnerability analysis for key sectors. These outcomes have been summarised in a State of Knowledge report (EPA Research Report 223) (https://www.epa.ie/pubs/reports/research/climate/). This theme has also been central to the development of guidelines to enable risk assessment and adaptation planning, as required under the NAF. This information is available via the Climate Ireland information platform (www.climateireland.ie). The aim is to provide information and data from the research programme and outcomes from relevant research and analysis at European levels. This can inform steps in the transition to a climate-resilient Ireland by 2050, as envisaged in the national policy statement. This research is also linked to the development of climate services (http://www.jpi-climate.eu/ERA4CS) at a European level through JPI Climate and DG Research and engagement with development and comparison of global climate models under the World Climate Research Programme (https://www.wcrp-climate.org/wgcm-cmip), in support of the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.
Theme 3: Socio-economic and Technological Solutions and Transition Management and Opportunities
Research in this area is focused on transition and transformation and the socio-economic and technological changes required for a carbon-neutral climate-resilient Ireland by 2050. Research has been focused on the development of key systems models and analysis. These include energy models for Ireland, as well as analysis of key sectoral issues such as transport and potential solutions such as carbon capture and storage. This has enabled the development of national energy systems modelling capacity and Irish versions of European integrated assessment models. This research has been at the forefront of enabling the inclusion of Ireland-specific analysis and data in pan-European analysis and has supported engagement with the European Commission and other European and international bodies, such as the International Energy Agency modelling groups (https://iea-etsap.org/index.php/etsap-tools). It has also informed energy policy development and the 2014 national policy position on climate change.
Funding under this theme has supported and allowed assessment of national research on technological solutions and storage and emerging technologies. Behavioural issues and market-based solutions have emerged as key areas of research. This is linked to the development of pan-European research, such as that being advanced by JPI Climate (West and Worliczek, 2019). Current research is focused on shared socio-economic pathways, synergies between mitigation and adaptation and the multiple benefits of climate actions, including for human health, biodiversity and ecosystem services. The research aims to inform actions to achieve national targets under the EU Climate and Energy Package.
Details of the latest EPA Funding Research Opportunities and Awards are available from here.
Since 2014, in this area:
- 110 projects have been funded (total commitment of c. €15.7m) (as of April 2020). For more details regarding the EPA-funded projects, please go to our Public Searchable Projects Database
- 46 EPA Research Reports have been published (as of April 2020).
The EPA is a member of the Climate Joint Programming Initiative (Member States-driven initiative which aims to enhance collaboration between national research programmes in Europe to address key societal challenges in a more efficient and effective manner). It connects scientific disciplines, enables cross-border research and increases the science-practice interaction. JPI Climate contributes to the overall objective of developing a European Research Area and to underpin the European efforts in tackling the societal challenge of climate change.
Official projections of GHG emissions to 2040 are based on two scenarios: (1) with current policies, regulations and incentives (i.e. With Existing Measures, WEM) and (2) with additional policies, regulations and incentives (i.e. With Additional Measures, WAM).
Total emissions are projected to increase from current levels by 1% and 6% by 2020 and 2030 respectively under the WEM scenario. Under the WAM scenario emissions are estimated to decrease by 0.4% and 10% by 2020 and 2030 respectively. The long-term projected decrease in emissions in the WAM scenario assumes implementation of climate mitigation policies and measures that formed part of the National Development Plan (NDP) which was published in 2018.
Ireland has exceeded its annual limits for the non-Emissions Trading Scheme sector emissions in 2016 and 2017. Based on the two emissions scenarios described above, total emissions are projected to be 5% (scenario 1) or 6% (scenario 2) below 2005 levels in 2020. The target is a 20% reduction. For the period 2018‑2030, agriculture emissions are projected to increase by 4%, while transport emissions are projected to increase by 11% under the WEM scenario.
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 faces a significant challenge to meet its National Policy Position, which aims to achieve a least 80% reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.
For Ireland to meet its EU targets for 2030 and to achieve National policy ambitions, implementation of further policies, regulations and incentives is urgently needed. Increased strategic planning, investment and resources are also needed 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.