Ireland’s Environment – An Asset Under Threat

Date released: Oct 08 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today released the fourth ‘state of the environment’ report, entitled Ireland’s Environment 2008. This report assesses the overall quality of Ireland’s environment, the pressures on it and the way we are responding as a society to current and emerging environmental issues.

Dr. Mary Kelly, Director General of the EPA, said:

“This major report analyses the last four years of Ireland’s performance on the environment and concludes that Ireland’s environmental quality is good, although we are not making headway and we are not progressing at the rate we need to.  We have challenges on climate change, we have challenges on water quality and we have challenges on waste.  If we are to protect the important asset that is the Irish environment we must continue to invest in environmental infrastructure, despite economic slowdown.”

She continued:

“Ireland has made progress in a number of important respects over recent years.  We have reduced certain emissions to air, we have modernised waste management, and we have made some improvements in public transport.  The success of the producer responsibility initiatives on packaging and on waste electrical goods (WEEE) and the continued growth in general recycling show that the public do respond when given the necessary information and supports.  While we acknowledge these successes, this report points to considerably less success in a number of other environmental areas as evidenced by the key environmental challenges we have identified (see: key challenges section).”

For the first time, this report also includes projections for environmental pressures, including waste generation and emissions to air. This allows us to predict what the future could look like unless significant policy actions are taken now.  For example:

  • Under the most favourable scenario, Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions will exceed the proposed reduction target for 2020 by seven million tonnes;
  • The biodegradable municipal waste diversion targets for 2016 will be missed by 800,000 tonnes. The maximum quantity of biodegradable municipal waste allowed to be landfilled in 2016 and beyond, under the EU Landfill Directive, is 451,000 tonnes;
  • Emissions of nitrogen oxides, currently well above the 2010 ceiling, are expected to remain high, mainly due to the continued emissions from the significant number of cars we drive.

The report underlines the need for continued research to better understand these issues, and for technological development to provide a means to address them.  For this reason there is a strong commitment to environmental research over the next six years.

“While we will maintain our focus on licensing, enforcing, regulation and education, we need to continue to fund research and the development of environmental technologies.  Today’s environmental research is tomorrow’s environmental protection, and through the development of green technologies innovative solutions can be brought to market.” Dr. Kelly said.

The overall picture painted by the EPA report, which is the most wide-ranging assessment of Ireland’s environment, highlights the scale of the challenges we face and shows that our environment is an asset under threat.
Presenting the report to Mr John Gormley, T.D., Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Dr Mary Kelly said:

“This report is an evidence based assessment of the Irish environment, which can and should be used by policy makers and decision makers to evaluate progress in meeting the main environmental challenges, and to determine whether national policies are being implemented and are working as planned”.

The report Ireland’s Environment 2008 is available from the EPA Publications Office, McCumiskey House, Richview, Dublin 14 on 01-2680100 or on the EPA website at .


The four main environmental challenges for Ireland are:

  1. Limiting and adapting to climate change;
  2. Reversing environmental degradation – particularly in relation to water pollution and the conservation status of habitats;
  3. Mainstreaming environmental considerations across all sectors of the economy; and
  4. Complying with environmental legislation and agreements.

1. Limiting and adapting to climate change

  • While Ireland will meet its Kyoto commitments, we may need to purchase another 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 above the 3.6 million tonnes planned for in the National Climate Change Strategy.
  • Ireland has one of the highest levels of per capita greenhouse gas emissions in the EU.
  • It is projected that Ireland will exceed its proposed greenhouse gas reduction target for 2020 by seven million tonnes.
  • Ireland needs to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and increase energy efficiency and use of alternative energy sources.
  • Future investment decisions must include measures to adapt to the impacts of climate change.

The report includes the recent EPA projections that have highlighted the major ongoing challenge for Ireland to meet its greenhouse gas emission limits under both the Kyoto Protocol and the proposed EU 2020 targets.  The projections show continuing challenges in the medium term, particularly in respect of emissions from agriculture, energy and transport, and underline the need to intensify and strengthen actions to reduce national emissions.

Based on a low growth economic outlook, even the most ambitious scenario - in terms of plans and policies envisaged – shows that there will be an average annual exceedance of our Kyoto 2008-2012 target equivalent to five million tonnes of CO2.  This is 1.4 million tonnes higher than that envisaged in the last National Climate Change Strategy.

The EU Commission’s initial proposal for the post 2012 period requires Ireland to deliver by 2020 a twenty per cent reduction, relative to 2005, in emissions of greenhouse gases (excluding sectors covered by the Emissions Trading Scheme).  The projections indicate that the emissions will be at least 7 million tonnes higher than this target.

“Climate change has been identified as the greatest challenge facing this generation and the EPA projections underline the difficulty in addressing this issue.  Ireland must rapidly develop a greener economy - involving energy efficiency and alternative energy sources - which is not just a challenge but also an opportunity for a country that has shown itself to be adaptable and progressive in so many ways in the recent past” said Dr Kelly.

“We also need to continue to inform and support the public in terms of individual actions that collectively can make a dramatic difference.”

The EPA report also emphasises the urgency of Ireland getting to grips with the unavoidable consequences of climate change, for example by investing in flood prevention and ensuring efficient management of water resources.  Building on some recent advances, ongoing research and technological development is needed to improve the understanding of climate impacts and the implications for Irish society, and to support the development of innovative technological solutions.

2. Reversing environmental degradation

  • 29% of river channel surveyed is polluted to some extent.
  • 66 lakes and 15 estuaries in unsatisfactory condition.
  • A range of key Irish habitats and seven species considered to be of ‘bad’ conservation status.
  • An estimated 75% of commercial fish species in Irish water harvested beyond safe biological limits.
  • No national inventory of contaminated sites and no overall policy framework for the management and remediation of contaminated land in Ireland.

Mr Larry Stapleton, Director, EPA Office of Environmental Assessment said:

“In more difficult economic circumstances the need is all the more evident to target our actions to where the environment is under the greatest pressure.  This report identifies three areas where there is a strong need to halt and reverse environmental degradation.  These relate to water pollution, the protection of important sites for flora and fauna, and the identification and remediation of contaminated land.”

The report shows that 29 per cent of river length is polluted to varying degrees, a slight improvement on previously but nothing like the rate of improvement that will be needed to meet the obligations of the Water Framework Directive (WFD), requiring that all waters be of at least good status by 2015.   The condition of 66 lakes and of 15 estuarine water bodies is unsatisfactory.   Groundwaters contain elevated nitrate concentrations in parts of the east and elevated phosphate concentrations in parts of the west.   Sewage discharges and agricultural sources are identified as the main causes of water pollution, and these findings can be expected to be reflected in the forthcoming River Basin Management Plans under the WFD. 

Many aspects of Ireland’s flora and fauna remain under serious threat from human activities leading to, often irreversible, losses – once this asset is gone, there is no comeback.     

The European Court of Justice ruled in 2007 that Ireland did not have in place a system of strict protection for specific protected species.   In 2008 the conservation status of key habitats that Ireland is required to protect under the EU Habitats Directive were assessed as being far from satisfactory, with particular reference to bogs, several categories of dunes, lakes, woodlands and natural grasslands.  While the status of protected species was somewhat more satisfactory, seven species were identified as having bad conservation status, including the freshwater pearl mussel and the Atlantic salmon.  In addition, many commercially important fish species in Irish waters are heavily exploited and it is estimated that as much as 75 per cent is being harvested beyond safe biological limits.

Currently, there is no complete inventory of sites in Ireland where there is a potential for soil and/or groundwater contamination. To address this there is a need to:

  • Establish a national inventory of such sites;
  • Develop processes to identify, manage and remediate such sites; and
  • Copper-fasten its approach through the adoption of specific legislation aimed at contaminated sites.

Ireland can learn from the approach adopted by other European countries where environmental quality standards are in place.

3. Mainstreaming environmental considerations across all sectors of the economy

  • Economic well-being is intrinsically linked to a clean and healthy environment.
  • Environmental considerations and priorities must be incorporated into policies and plans at national, regional and local level.
  • Protecting Ireland’s environment is a shared responsibility  - business and individuals need to strengthen their environmental behaviour.

Dr Mícheál Lehane, EPA Programme Manager and lead editor of the report said:

“Economic well-being is intrinsically linked to a clean and protected environment and therefore economic policies must continue to integrate environmental issues. It is important that all sectors fully engage in the process of addressing the requirements of the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive”.

The provision and maintenance of sufficient infrastructure in the areas of sustainable transport, renewable energy, wastewater treatment, waste management and flood prevention and control is critical for sustainable development.

However, the responsibility for addressing environmental issues is not just the role of governmental bodies, it is shared by every member of society. Changing behaviours of individuals and ensuring environmentally responsible business is essential to meet the environmental challenges identified in this report.  The Irish public are increasingly aware of environmental priorities and we have changed our behaviour accordingly. This is obvious in our increased waste recycling for example.  We must ensure that our green behaviour continues and strengthens, so that we can achieve a more sustainable style of living. We can all do more in the areas of energy use, transport, heating, water conservation and waste prevention and management.

Participation in green business initiatives such as Green Business and the Cleaner Greener Production Programme is a step in the right direction for Irish businesses.

4. Complying with environmental legislation and agreements

  • Ireland faces difficult challenges in meeting many of its environmental protection obligations under European legislation and other internationally binding legal agreements. 
  • Ireland must avoid major financial penalties and the most challenging commitments lie in the following areas:
    • Preventing deterioration of water quality, under the Water Framework Directive;
    • Ensuring that drinking water quality is clean and wholesome;
    • Reducing greenhouse gases, under the Kyoto Protocol and the European Commission’s Climate Action and Renewable Energy Package;
    • Fulfilling Ireland’s obligations on the designation, classification, management and protection of sites, under the Habitat and Birds Directive;
    • Achieving emissions reductions targets for transboundary gases, particularly nitrogen oxide emissions, under the National Emissions Ceiling Directive; and
    • Reducing biodegradable waste disposed to landfill, under the EU Landfill Directive.

State bodies and local authorities must be proactive guardians and stewards of the environment, but all businesses and individual citizens must also be environmentally conscious and compliant with environmental laws.

  • Ireland needs to continue to invest in its enforcement infrastructure;
  • Ireland needs to regulate potentially polluting activities at a higher and more consistent level;
  • Ireland needs to develop a strong culture of compliance with environmental legislation.

Only consistent enforcement of environmental legislation at national and local level, combined with continued investment in infrastructure, will ensure that Ireland moves from a position of reacting to environmental impacts to proactively protecting our environment.

Further information: Niamh Leahy, EPA Media Relations Office 053-9170770 (24 hours)