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 2015 Paris Agreement sets the international agenda for addressing this challenge by setting clear temperature goals. The pathways to these goals will need to be addressed at national and sub-national levels and by cities, businesses and communities.
The accumulation in the atmosphere of relatively stable and inert gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) that trap energy are the key threats to our climate.
Carbon dioxide concentrations have increased by 40 per cent since pre-industrial times. The global average atmospheric carbon dioxide in 2019 was 409.8 parts per million (ppm), with a range of uncertainty of plus or minus 0.1 ppm. Carbon dioxide levels today are higher than at any point in at least the past 800,000 years. This is primarily due to fossil fuel emissions but also land use changes, which release carbon from biomass and soils.
The 2018 IPCC report Global Warming of 1.5°C reported that the global temperature had increased by 1.0°C relative to pre-industrial levels and that, at the current rate of warming, the world would reach a 1.5°C warming between 2030 and 2050 (IPCC, 2018). If continued, a 2°C increase could occur early in the second half of this century.
The main features of such an increase are:
• increase in average temperature (surface air temperature and sea surface temperature) in changes in precipitation patterns
• changes in the rate of occurrence and scales of extreme weather events, such as heat waves, rainfall events, storms, sea surges and flash floods
• slow-onset changes such as sea level rise, the loss of glaciers and ecosystem changes.
Evidence of these changes is apparent around the world, as outlined in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report in 2014. Key features are explored in detail in the 2019 Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. Across Europe, there has been an increase of almost 2°C since the latter half of the 19th century.
In general, the climate trends observed in Ireland follow the global average. For Ireland, mid-century mean annual temperatures are projected to increase by between 1.0°C and 1.6°C depending on the emissions trajectory. Heat wave events are expected to increase by mid-century and this will have a direct impact on public health and mortality. These changes may affect the phenological phases in many plant and animal species. By mid-century there are projected increases in both dry periods and heavy precipitation events, meaning that we will have to consider increased flood risk and droughts risks. There is also the possibility that, although the average wind speed may decrease, the intensity of individual storms may increase (Nolan, 2015).
Ireland's Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Ireland’s GHG emissions increased in the period from 1990 to 2001 where it peaked at 70.46 Mt CO2 equivalent, before displaying a downward trend to 2014. Emissions increased by 4.1% and 3.4%, respectively in the years, 2015 and 2016 and remained relatively stable in 2017 and 2018. In 2019 provisional estimates of total national GHG emissions amounted to 59.90Mt CO2 equivalent, which is 4.5 per cent lower than 2018 emissions. Ireland’s GHG emissions have increased by 10.1 per cent from 1990-2019.
In relation to the greenhouse gases; carbon dioxide (CO2) accounted for 62.2% of the total, with methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) contributing 24.6% and 11.4% as CO2 equivalent, respectively and F-gases contributing 1.8 per cent of the total as CO2 equivalent.
In 2019, the energy industries, transport and agriculture sectors accounted for 71.4% of total GHG emissions. Agriculture is the single largest contributor to the overall emissions, at 35.3 per cent. Transport, Energy Industries and the Residential sector are the next largest contributors, at 20.3 per cent, 15.8 per cent and 10.9 per cent, respectively.
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.
In line with international reporting guidelines, Ireland estimates emissions and removals associated with the following land uses: Forest land, Cropland, Grassland, Wetlands, Settlements and Other land. Forest land currently plays a significant role as a carbon sink. Since 1990, Ireland’s forest area has expanded by approximately 290,000 ha. As these forests grow and mature, they represent an important CO2 sink and long-term carbon store in biomass and soil. However, low forest planting rates in recent years are a future risk in the terms of our national forest estate continuing to act as a significant carbon sink.
Agricultural land management practices can lead to both emissions and removals of GHGs associated both with biomass and soils. Based on best available data, the net impact of land management in agriculture is dominated by a very significant emission of carbon dioxide due to the drainage of organic soils. Although the total area involved is relatively small, at approximately 330,000 ha (8% of the grassland area), the impact is large.
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 and biodiversity.
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 (GHGs) 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 35.3% of national Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) emissions in 2019, mainly methane from livestock, and nitrous oxide due to the use of nitrogen fertiliser and manure management.
In 2019, emissions from energy industries have decreased by 11.2 per cent on 2018, mainly because of the replacement of coal and peat with natural gas and wind generated electricity. Overall, GHG emissions from energy industries accounted for 15.8 per cent of Ireland’s national total emissions in 2019. Over the period 1990-2019, emissions from electricity generation have decreased by 18.0 per cent, whereas total electricity consumption has increased by 139.5 per cent. This decrease reflects the improvement in efficiency of modern gas fired power plants replacing older peat and oil-fired plants and the increased share of renewables, primarily, wind power along with increased interconnectivity.
Between 1990 and 2019, emissions from transport showed the greatest overall increase, at 136.9 per cent, with road transport increasing 142.4 per cent. Transport emissions have decreased by 15.4 per cent below peak levels in 2007, primarily because of the economic downturn, improving vehicle fuel efficiency as a result of changes to the vehicle registration tax, the increase in use of biofuels and significant decreases in fuel tourism in recent years. However, more recently, increases in transport emissions have been recorded for 5 out of the last 7 years as the economy has grown and transport movements have increased.
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 and National Adaptation Framework processes, which are designed to address the causes and consequences of climate change in Ireland. The Act also established the Climate Change Advisory Council (CCAC) to advise government on climate policy and review progress on annual targets.
In 2018, the government tasked the Citizens’ Assembly with considering the question of Ireland becoming a leader in climate action. The findings of the Assembly were then considered by a special Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action, which subsequently published its report and recommendations (Houses of the Oireachtas, 2019). Following this, the government published the Climate Action Plan in 2019.
The Climate Action Plan 2019 charts a course towards meeting EU emissions reduction targets for Ireland to 2030. The plan is an important step towards reaching the longer term target of net zero emissions by 2050; however, it assumes a very significant increase in the rate of decarbonisation post 2030. International analysis suggest that early actions can lead to more cost effective decarbonisation.
In 2020, the new government committed to an average 7 per cent per annum reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions from 2021 to 2030, equivalent to a 51 per cent reduction over the decade and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. New measures are expected to be announced over the next year to realise this ambition.
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 Paris Agreement enters its implementation phase in 2020, and in doing so replaces the 1997 Kyoto Protocol as the framework for achievement of the objective of the UNFCCC, which is to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.
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 2019, renewable energy made up approximately 12% of energy used, mainly from bioenergy and wind power, which is some way short of our 16% target. Currently, 37.6% of electricity generation is from renewable sources, relative to the 40% target for 2020.
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 €26 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.
To make Ireland ‘a leader in responding to climate disruption’, as per the Climate Action Plan 2019, a fundamental change in Irish transport policy is required. This needs to be aimed at delivering long-term avoid and shift, followed by improve. A reliance on measures for improving the energy and carbon efficiency of vehicles is evident in Irish policy. We also need to consider avoiding journeys where possible, through innovative spatial and transport planning for compact development, and for shifting to low-carbon transport systems of walking, cycling and public transport.
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:
- 121 projects have been funded (total commitment of c. €16.7m) (as of November 2020). For more details regarding the EPA-funded projects, please go to our Public Searchable Projects Database
- 63 EPA Research Reports have been published (as of November 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).
The WAM scenario includes the impact of new climate mitigation policies and measures that are in Ireland’s Climate Action Plan which was published in 2019. This Plan sets out a major programme of policies and measures aimed to help Ireland achieve its decarbonisation goals.
In the short term, Ireland is set to miss its target for compliance with the EU’s Effort Sharing Decision 2020 targets. Ireland’s non-Emissions Trading Scheme emissions are projected to be 2% and 4% below 2005 levels in 2020 under the WEM and WAM scenarios, respectively. This compares to the target of 20% below 2005 levels by 2020. Ireland has exceeded its annual limits for the non-Emissions Trading Scheme sector emissions in 2016- 2018 and provisional figures indicate 2019 emissions will be 6.98 Mt CO2eq more than the annual limit.
In the longer term, Ireland will meet its 2030 target under the Effort Sharing Regulation as long as there is early and full implementation of the 2019 Climate Action Plan measures. Ireland will also need to avail of, at a minimum, Land-use, Land-use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) flexibilities provided for in EU legislation in order to comply.
Electricity generation, agriculture and transport, which continue to be key sectors that dominate Ireland’s emissions profile, are all projected to decline by 2030, based on full implementation of the measures in the Climate Action Plan. For electricity generation, this will mean scaling up of the contribution of renewable to 70% by 2030. For agriculture this will mean implementing measures such as those set out in Teagasc’s Marginal Abatement Cost Curve to achieve a 16.5 Mt CO2eq emission reduction over the period 2021-2030. For transport, this will mean almost one million electric vehicles on Irish roads by 2030 and a considerable increase in the use of biofuels. A significant increase in the installation of heat pumps for domestic and commercial heating and much improved energy efficiency of Ireland’s building stock is also necessary in the residential, commercial/public services and manufacturing sectors.
Ireland faces a significant challenge to meet its National Policy Position, which aims to achieve a least 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. For Ireland to achieve its National Policy ambition beyond 2030, further policies, regulations and incentives will be needed. Furthermore the increased ambition at EU level following the European Green Deal, is likely to necessitate a further step-up, additional to the 2019 Climate Action Plan, in the pace and scale of emission reductions.
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.
Ireland’s climate is changing. Mitigation and adaptation action that is planned, coordinated and prioritised is required to build the resilience of society and the economy in the face of current and projected climate change impacts.
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.
The next decade needs to be one of major developments and advances in relation to Ireland’s response to climate change. We need to start implementing ambitious policies now. Full and early implementation of ambitious policies and measures can deliver Ireland’s current and future commitments to a climate-neutral economy and climate-resilient society by 2050.