Ireland’s Environmental Challenges

In very recent memory,  In December 2015 a key United Nations climate change conference was held in Paris. A determined group of  Irish  environment activists set out overland to participate, overcame considerable travelling difficulties due to industrial action at the French border, and returned to make a triumphant presentation  on the new global agreement at Trinity College Dublin a few days later. The Paris Accords resolved to  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, to increase capacity to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change,  to make finance available so as to further the  reduction of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).  Paris was the latest in a series of such international conferences.  Earlier landmark international conventions   were the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol which extended this in December 1997. the Doha Amendment in 2012.   Ireland is now subject to binding targets on climate change, with penalties for non compliance.  Not only that, Ireland is also subject to  numerous and detailed EU Environmental  regulations and targets with respect to air quality,  water quality, preservation of biodiversity,  land use and soil functions, waste disposal, the things that are essential for  our health and wellbeing and enable economic activity to be sustainable.

These obligations  imply profound change over the next decades that will affect every aspect of economic life in Ireland.    Ireland was  one of the most resource inefficient countries in the EU at the time of the economic collapse in 2008, with use of material resources, and production of waste,  growing faster than  population growth.  That situation was reversed  due to the reduction in personal consumption and collapse of the building industry caused by the recession. The revival of economic growth promises to turn the clock back.  The challenge is to have economic growth without environmental damage.

A 2016 environmental review by the Environment Protection Agency concluded that in the matter of Protecting, Conserving and  Enhancing Natural Capital,  only in the area of  Water Quality and Air Pollution and their  ecosystem impacts do improving trends dominate in the next ten years, with a mixed picture after that.   In the matter of Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity, Land use and Soil functions, and  Climate Change impacts on Ecosystems during  the next twenty years deteriorating trends  are considered likely to be dominate.  Marine and Coastal Biodiversity is seen as subject to deteriorating trends for the next five to ten years.   With regard to Resource Efficiency, improving trends are seen as dominating in the next five to ten years in the matter of  Water Management, Greenhouse Gas emissions, Energy Consumption and Fossil Fuel use, Transport Demand and related impacts and industrial pollution to air, soil and water.  Thereafter the outlook for greenhouse gas emissions and climate change mitigation, energy consumption and fossil fuel use, transport demand and related environment impacts is  seen as dominated by deteriorating trends.  With regard to safeguarding from environmental risks to health, in the next five years improving trends are seen as dominating in the area of water quality with a mixed picture thereafter. With regard to safeguarding against climate change and the risks to health it will cause,  deteriorating trends only are foreseeable for the next twenty years and beyond.  Other risks to health are seen from air pollution, noise pollution in cities,  health damage from urban systems and health damage from chemicals. The challenge for government, for policy makers, for industrial leaders for voters will be to reverse these deteriorating trends.

Ireland’s GHG emissions peaked in 2001 at 71,394 kt CO2 equivalent. In 2014, total emissions of GHGs  amounted to 58,254 kt CO2 equivalent, which is 18% lower than the peak value but still higher than 1990 emissions, a base year.

In Ireland the Agriculture sector was directly responsible for 32.2% of national GHG emissions in 2014, mainly methane from livestock, and nitrous oxide due to the use of nitrogen fertiliser and manure management (EPA, 2016a).  For the period 2014-2020, agriculture emissions are projected to increase by 6–7%, and transport emissions  by 10-16%.  Total  GHG  emissions are projected to be 6-11%   below 2005 levels in 2020.  The target is a 20% reduction.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates  that Ireland is not on track for meeting its aim  to achieve a least 80% reductions in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 relative to 1990 levels by transport, electricity generation and the built environment and to  approach carbon neutrality in agriculture and land use.

The lifting of EU milk quotas has prompted the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine  to set a  target  to increase by  65%  the value of farm gate output by 2025,  publishing also the actions that they say  will enable this expansion to  be carbon neutral.  However, the  Environment Protection Agency 2016  review suggests that a lot of evidence will need to be brought forward to demonstrate   they will work.  In the absence of carbon neutrality, the taxpayer may have to pay for failure.  Not only that, the prevention of flooding in river basins makes it inescapable that large tracts of land will need to be set aside from normal farming and be allowed to flood and so retain rainwater for gradual dispersal into rivers.  To this may be added the necessary reduction of intensive farming that is called for in order to preserve biodiversity.  The Common Agricultural Policy has so far provided excessive incentives to farmers to bring into intensive  agricultural production land that is more suitable for low intensity farming for high nature value.

Sean Macken – Science Writer

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