Carbon emissions down last year by just 3.6% despite Covid-19 restraints

Home and agricultural greenhouse gases up, says EPA – stressing challenge facing State

Methane, arising from livestock, manure management and fuel combustion on farms, contributed 65% to agriculture emissions, which increased by 1.4% since 2019. File photograph: Getty

Methane, arising from livestock, manure management and fuel combustion on farms, contributed 65% to agriculture emissions, which increased by 1.4% since 2019. File photograph: Getty

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Ireland’s carbon emissions reduced by just 3.6 per cent last year compared to 2019 despite widespread Covid-19 restrictions on activities, new figures show.

Residential and agricultural greenhouse gases increased. And this underlined the challenge facing the country in attempting to halve overall emissions by 2030, according to provisional figures issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Household emissions increased by 9 per cent caused by “a substantial increase in carbon-intensive fossil fuel use driven by low fuel prices and working from home”.

Agriculture emissions increased by 1.4 per cent in 2020, “driven by increased activity in all areas, including a 3.2 per cent increase in the number of dairy cows”.

Lockdowns resulted in a 15.7 per cent decline in transport emissions, the largest sectoral reduction. There was a 7.9 per cent reduction in energy industry emissions as peat-fuelled electricity generation fell by 51 per cent, coinciding with a 15 per cent increase in wind generation. This was despite a similar level of electricity demand to 2019, indicating a positive impact of increased renewable energy use.

“While the overall reduction in emissions is welcome, the majority – almost two million tonnes of CO2 equivalent – of the reduction was due to a short-term decrease in transport emissions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is likely to be once-off,” the EPA report warns.

EPA director general Laura Burke welcomed the 2020 reduction on top of a decline in 2019 but highlighted the need for greater urgency in cutting emissions.

“Limited reduction in emissions during 2020, at a time of profound change to economic and social activity due to the Covid-19 pandemic, highlight the scale of action needed across all parts of our economy and society to meet the 51 per cent emissions reduction by 2030 set within the 2021 Climate Act. Urgent action is also necessary to avoid a growth in GHGs [greenhouse gases] during post-Covid economic recovery.”

Ireland exceeded its 2020 annual EU emissions allocation by 6.7 million tonnes of CO2 and cumulatively exceeded its allocation over the lifetime of the 2013-2020 “effort sharing decision” – an international commitment – by over 12 million tonnes. Emissions covered under the effort sharing decision in 2020 have only fell by 7 per cent on the 2005 level compared to the overall target of a 20 per cent reduction.

With peat and coal use at a relatively low level in 2020, the EPA analysis shows “further emissions reductions in line with the Climate Act ambition will depend largely on continued rapid deployment of renewable generation”.

Agriculture emissions have increased by 12 per cent over the past 10 years, it confirms. It says 2020 increases were driven by increased fertiliser nitrogen use (3.3 per cent), increased numbers of livestock including dairy cows (3.2 per cent), other cattle (0.6 per cent), sheep (4.8 per cent) and pigs (2.5 per cent).

What about methane?

In the past decade, dairy cows have increased by 45.5 per cent with a corresponding 60 per cent milk production increase, while sheep numbers increased by 22 per cent, pigs by 10 per cent and poultry by 26 per cent, it adds.

Methane, arising from livestock, manure management and fuel combustion on farms, contributed 65 per cent to the agriculture sector emissions, which increased by 1.4 per cent since 2019.

With many people working from home last year coal use increased by 6 per cent, peat by 3 per cent and kerosene by 19 per cent. Since 2014, emissions per household have gradually increased, “indicating an acceleration of energy efficiency retrofit and renewable energy deployment is needed to avoid a continued increase in emissions from the sector”,

The transport reduction was a result of restrictions on passenger car and public transport usage, the EPA confirms.

“At the end of 2020, there were just under 26,000 battery electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles [EVs] in Ireland, highlighting the extent of the challenge in meeting the over 936,000 EVs by 2030 climate action plan target,” it adds.