Ireland's Climate Report Card

Posted on January 24, 2021 at 12:52 PM


Paul Goldrick-Kelly By Paul Goldrick-Kelly  |    21 January 2021

In this week’s blog, NERI economist Paul Goldrick-Kelly outlines some of the latest provisional data on Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions. While they show a welcome fall, Paul points out that considerable challenges remain if we are to adequately contribute to addressing the global climate crisis.

powerplant smoke stack

Late last year, the EPA published their provisional estimates for greenhouse gas emissions in Ireland in 2019. This offers us a useful snapshot of our progress before the pandemic and its associated lock-downs. Public health measures have led to declines that should be reflected in data for 2020 and 2021, but 2019 data should give us a better picture of Ireland’s record to date regarding emissions and help us identify remaining challenges.

In 2019, the EPA provisionally estimate that activities within the Republic of Ireland generated approximately 59.9 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions(CO2 eq). This measurement incorporates various greenhouse gases in terms of a common metric based on the heat they absorb relative to carbon dioxide. If methane absorbs 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide (has a global warming potential of 25), one tonne of methane will be measured as 25 tonnes of CO2 eq.

This is a fall of about 4.5 per cent relative to 2018 levels, or about 2.8 million tonnes CO2 eq. About half of this reduction came about in the ETS sector encompassing the installations, plants and domestic aviation subject to the EU’s Emissions Trading System: a cap and trade carbon market where companies must possess or purchase tradeable emissions permits whose overall level is set by the EU.

Non-ETS sector emissions, which encompass more than three quarters of the national territorial total, fell by approximately 1.46 million tonnes CO2 eq or 3.1 per cent year on year. Agriculture is by some way the biggest contributor to this sector comprising about 46.3 per cent of emissions, or 35.5 per cent of total emissions, and it saw a 3.9 per cent reduction in emissions – the first decline seen since 2014.

This represents a step in the right direction, but we should temper our assessment with some difficult facts. Ireland is still a disproportionate contributor to a pressing global environmental crisis – in 2018 (the latest data available), Ireland was the third highest territorial emitter in the EU-27 per person over 50 per cent higher than the bloc average. While Ireland improved modestly on the 2021 Climate Change Performance Index moving from 41st to 39th, it retains its status as a “low” performer.

Ireland will, again, miss its EU targets for non-ETS emissions in 2019 by 6.98 million tonnes, an increase over the 5.57 million tonnes difference observed in 2018. This will be the forth year in a row Ireland misses targets. Concerningly, the years where targets were exceeded seem to be a function of the last crisis, with the negative gap to target closing as Ireland recovered.

The decline in emissions from Ireland’s agriculture sector, the major structural contributor to our status as a relatively high territorial emitter, while welcome, occurred relative to that sector’s 30 year high in 2018. As Kayle Crosson reports, the cattle herd – the biggest contributor to agricultural emissions - continued to expand for the 9th consecutive year, growing by 2.8 per cent.

Examining emissions on a resident basis – that is, assigning emissions based on where units have a predominant economic interest rather than where the emissions take place – presents us an even more alarming picture. Assigning emissions to resident units adds some 17.19 million CO2 eq tonnes to Ireland’s total in 2019, nearly all of which are attributable to international flights by resident airlines. Economic activity booked in Ireland contributes significantly more to the global emissions problem than a purely territorial perspective might lead you to believe. This also does not account for imported emissions where Ireland, like most nations in the global north consumes goods and services which produce emissions which tend to be booked elsewhere.

All of which is to say that, despite progress, we face a considerable and multifaceted task. Recovery plans cannot amount to schemes to return to the status quo ante, and policy will have to address some thorny issues if we’re to meet our government’s plans to reduce emissions by over 50 per cent by the end of the decade. Even this might not be adequate to meet our national fair share reductions, reflecting our relatively high contributions to this global problem as a high per capita emitter and relatively wealthy nation.  

Progress is welcome, but we'll have to step up our game.

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