Greenhouse gas emissions rebound to above pre-Covid levels in Ireland, EPA warns

Provisional 2021 figures indicate agriculture emissions rose to 37.5% of overall emissions

Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 4.7 per cent in 2021 compared with 2020 and have rebounded to above 2019 pre-Covid levels, the State’s environmental watchdog has confirmed.

The provisional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) figures for 2021 strongly indicate current carbon budget limits for the period up to 2025 are likely to be breached. This casts in doubt the achieving of legally-binding emission reduction targets for up to 2030, notably a 51 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

The latest figures will necessitate deep and immediate emissions cuts across the economy to stay within limits, the EPA concluded.

The carbon budget up to 2025 agreed by the Oireachtas requires emissions to reduce by 4.8 per cent on average each year for five years, but the rising emissions scenario and delays in putting in place sectoral ceilings are hampering progress.

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The EPA noted on Wednesday that 23.5 per cent of the 2021-2025 carbon budget has already been used, “requiring an 8.4 per cent average annual emissions reduction from 2022-2025 to stay within budget”.

Agricultural emissions did not reduce during Covid restrictions and are now 15 per cent higher than the 1990 level. Emissions increased by 3 per cent in 2021 compared with 2020, driven by increased synthetic fertiliser use and dairy cow numbers.

Methane originating from enteric fermentation in livestock, manure management and fuel combustion contributed 69.6 per cent to farm sector emissions — up by 1.8 per cent.

Energy emissions increased by 17.6 per cent in 2021, driven by a tripling of coal and oil use in electricity generation. Residential greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 4.9 per cent in 2021, driven by a combination of less time in the home, a milder winter and increased fuel prices. Transport emissions increased by 6.1 per cent as Covid restrictions lifted, however, emissions were 10.5 per cent below the pre-Covid 2019 level.

EPA senior manager Stephen Treacy said: “The estimates for 2021 are a cause for concern in relation to achieving Ireland’s binding carbon budget targets. Staying within the current budget now requires deep emission cuts of over 5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent [Mt CO2eq] per annum over the succeeding four years.”

EPA director general Laura Burke said a return to coal use in electricity generation, together with continued growth in agriculture emissions and a partial rebound in transport emissions following easing of Covid restrictions “have combined to deliver an increase on pre-pandemic levels of emissions”.

“The data show the scale of change needed within and across all sectors of Ireland’s economy to make sustained progress in reversing this trend and to meet our EU commitments and national emission reduction targets,” she added.

Levels in 2021 were 1.1 per cent above pre-Covid levels in 2019. In total, 61.53 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent were emitted. When land use, land use change and forestry (LULUCF) are included, Ireland has used up 69.3 Mt CO2eq (23.5 per cent) of the 295 Mt CO2eq allowed for in the first recently approved 2021-2025 carbon budget.

Key sectoral findings include:

Energy Industries: Consumption of peat declined by 67 per cent in 2021 to an all-time low in power generation. Natural gas use declined by 8.9 per cent as some plants were offline. Electricity generated from renewables fell from 42 per cent in 2020 to 35 per cent due to low rainfall and less wind. This resulted in an increase in the emissions intensity of power generation by 11.9 per cent.

Agriculture: Emissions totalled 23.1 Mt CO2eq. This is the 11th consecutive year dairy cow numbers have risen. Milk output per cow also increased (2.5 per cent); “therefore, increased production was driven by a rise in livestock numbers in conjunction with an increase in milk yield per cow”. Total cattle numbers increased by 0.8 per cent.

Use of lime on agricultural soils increased by 49.5 per cent; “a welcome measure in improving soil fertility”, which should lead to reduced nitrogen fertiliser use.

Nitrous oxide emissions from manure management, agricultural soils and fuel combustion contributed 24.8 per cent of emissions — up by 3.4 per cent since 2020.

Residential: Emissions totalled 7.04 Mt CO2eq, decreasing by 4.9 per cent compared with 2020. Emissions in 2020 had risen due to increased working from home — 8 per cent above pre-pandemic levels.

A combination of warmer weather, rising fuel prices towards the end of the year and easing of Covid restrictions contributed to substantial reductions in coal, peat and kerosene use for home heating.

However, since 2014, fuel use per household has increased by 12 per cent with emissions per household at 3.8 tonnes of CO2 in 2021.

Transport: Increases in traffic volumes during 2021 as Covid restrictions lifted resulted in a 6.1 per cent rise in emissions. Road transport emissions increased from 9.7 Mt CO2eq in 2020 to 10.3 Mt CO2eq in 2021.

At the end of 2021, there were just under 47,000 battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles in Ireland, approximately 24 per cent of the Climate Action Plan target for 2025 of 195,300 — and ahead of a linear uptake trajectory towards that target.

LULUCF (Land use, land use change and forestry): This sector accounted for 11.2 per cent of the total emissions and has been a net source of emissions since 1990. The main source of emissions is drainage of grasslands on organic soils and exploitation of wetlands for peat extraction. Forest land and harvested wood products are a carbon sink (removing CO2) but the sink associated with forest land is declining due to the age profile of existing forests and declining afforestation levels.

International aviation: In 2021, international aviation contributed 1.3 Mt CO2eq from more than 52,500 return flights from Irish airports, a significant reduction given international aviation emissions averaged more than 3.0 Mt CO2eq per year before the pandemic. This figure is not included in total Irish emissions.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times