The Irish economy is powering ahead but growth continues to be linked to rising greenhouse gas emissions. New CSO data indicates mounting pressure on the Government to reduce emissions while wrestling with the consequences of continuing strong economic growth.
Analysis published on Wednesday indicates only modest decoupling of rising CO2 levels from increasing economic activity since 2010, with the latter forging ahead while emissions continue to rise. This contrasts with most EU countries which are reducing their carbon footprint in a sustained pattern with a green transitioning of their economies.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) greenhouse gas projections for Ireland covering the period 2022-2040, due to be published on Friday, are likely to confirm the scale of the problem, with emissions rising strongly since 2020 and no indication of plateauing in the short term.
Five sectors accounted for 78 per cent of Irish greenhouse gas emissions in 2020, according to the latest CSO data, which focuses for the first time on the extent to which growth and emissions are linked. Agriculture (38 per cent) and households (27 per cent) were by far the highest emitting sectors.
Separate data for 2010-2020 confirm a boom in economic activity over much of the past decade has been tied into rising emissions, though growth outpaced emissions. The ideal scenario is “green growth” while reducing emissions (decarbonisation) across the economy – a legally-binding overall reduction of 51 per cent by 2030 has been adopted by the Government with a 2018 baseline.
Census 2022 data published this week showing increased car use and reduced public transport use highlight the issue in an economy experiencing sustained growth, with unemployment reaching an all-time record low of 3.8 per cent. The number of people who drove to work increased by 4 per cent to 1.2 million between 2016 and 2022, while there were 4 per cent fewer people commuting to work by train, Luas or Dart.
The combined CSO data shows the Government is struggling to manage emissions reductions with economic growth which is set to continue over the coming decade, on top of having the fastest growing economy in Europe for the past 10 years.
The CSO’s 2020 figures confirm 39 per cent of electricity was generated from renewables, while 20 per cent of houses used electricity for heating – accounting for 46 per cent of the sector’s emissions.
“The roadmap is clear for decarbonising households” in line with Government targets, by reducing fossil fuel use in heating while scaling up renewable electricity, said CSO statistician Clare O’Hara. But the likely trajectory for agriculture is less clear – notwithstanding some progress, she added.
UCC clean energy analyst Dr Paul Deane said: “In Ireland our energy use and associated emissions are not as closely tied to the economy than other countries. Our economy is more based on services than on manufacturing, and the services sector tends to have a lower energy use per unit of value added, and can increase the value of outputs without significantly increasing energy use or emissions.
“The exception here is transport, which was and still is strongly linked to economic activity. The more active the economy is the more active we are in moving around in our cars, and we have yet to successfully decouple this emission trend from economic activity.”
Dr Deane said he would add a note of caution on CSO 2020 figures “as in 2021 economic growth, energy use and related emissions all grew, after falling in 2020 due to the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic”.
Dr O’Hara said the data shows the influence of Covid on household emissions primarily due to increased heating in homes and reduced transport emissions, “but it had less of an impact than anticipated”.
A spokesperson for Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan said the CSO figures “largely pre-date” the programme for government which is underpinned by a commitment to addressing climate and reducing emissions.
“Since then we’ve enacted the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act, we’ve had two climate action plans and we’ve set sectoral targets for our high-impact sectors. This is being translated into action every day – a retrofitting programme that is meeting all targets, one new rural bus route a week – local link passenger numbers are up 82 per cent since last year, for example – unprecedented funding for active travel, solar and wind development at scale, micro-generation, nearly zero-emission building standards to name just some of the actions happening.”
The spokesperson added that the EPA emissions projections to 2030, due to be published soon, would give a “more accurate sense of where we at in 2023”.