Whatever way one looks at the latest EPA projections on Ireland’s likely greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over coming years, they highlight a failure to address a problem that is quickly going to get even more difficult – and more costly.
The political implications of this will be far-reaching, even for the current Government in the last months of office. Hardening divisions between the bigger parties – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil – and the Greens over EU nature restoration law show how fraught political action on the climate/biodiversity front can become, even when nature restoration is a win-win in species/habitat enhancement and applying nature-based solutions to our emissions problem.
Cracks in climate policy in particular are emerging; notably poor and slow implementation of what on paper are ambitious targets with measures backed by timelined actions. This is graphically illustrated in the latest EPA modelling, which is getting more robust. Its annual projections are an estimate of what emission levels are likely to be in future years. They are based on key assumptions such as economic growth, fuel prices and government policy.
Almost all sectors of the economy will fail to meet 2030 targets. Carbon budgets supposed to impose discipline through legally-adopted ceilings are highly unlikely to do their job.
Ireland is set to reduce its emissions by 29 per cent, instead of 51 per cent committed to, in a likely best case scenario – at a time when most wealthy EU member states like us are already on a sustained downward trajectory with the benefits that this brings.
Carbon budgets are not about spending but apply limits on the amount of carbon every sector can generate over a set period. The overall limits (defined in terms of million tonnes of CO2 equivalent) are set out by the Climate Change Advisory Council and applied by the Government in two, five-yearly carbon budgets that run up to 2030.
As the EPA makes clear, the combination of sustained economic growth, surging energy demand and a rising population are making it extremely difficult to keep the lid on associated emissions.
It applies two modelling scenarios – “with existing measures” (WEM) and “with additional measures” (WAM).
WEM is based on measures currently implemented and actions committed to by Government and in place since the end of 2021 with required resourcing and legislation. For example, it includes carbon tax increasing annually and reaching €100 per tonne by 2030.
WAM is a projection of future emissions based on measures in Government plans at the time projections are compiled, notably in this instance the 2023 climate plan. This include policies and measures included in WEM plus those in recent Government plans but not yet implemented. For example, it includes the target of 945,000 EVs on the road by 2030.
While the WAM outcome is predicted (understandably) to give a better outcome in most cases, the performance gaps in almost all scenarios are worrying.
It should be acknowledged, however, that the climate plan commits to additional cuts of 9 million metric tonnes of CO2, including unallocated savings of 5.25 million tonnes per annum for 2026-2030. Close to half those savings will come from measures likely to achieve significant reductions, such as scale-up of wind and solar energy and significant agricultural diversification.
The extent of failure, nonetheless, will be crystallised in coming weeks when the EPA issues its draft GHG inventories for 2022, indicating levels of emissions in each sector – though it should be acknowledged big decarbonisation measures such as public transport infrastructure take time in providing tangible returns.
It easy to become obsessed with targets that frequently fall short of what’s required in addressing the climate crisis. But just as every tenth of a degree matters in seeking to curtail the worst effects of global warming, every tonne of CO2 matters when curtailing its discharge into the atmosphere.
With that mindset the Government – and future administrations up to 2030 – will need to close those emissions gaps as quickly as possible. So much of the heavy lifting can be achieved by full implementation of what is already planned. Consistently applying additional measures to keep ahead of growth – currently outstripping decarbonisation efforts – will get us even closer to achieving that headline figure of 51 per cent.