Ireland ranks lowest on environment in latest EU progress index

Comparison of 15 EU countries shows better progress under social and economic actions

 Ireland has consistently ranked among the poorest performing countries on the environmental sustainable development goals. Photograph: iStock

Ireland has consistently ranked among the poorest performing countries on the environmental sustainable development goals. Photograph: iStock

 

Ireland ranks in the lowest position out of 15 EU countries on environment, according to the latest Sustainable Progress Index (SPI) commissioned by Social Justice Ireland.

While some progress has been made over the past year, other countries are making greater headway in implementing environment and climate action measures as set out under the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).

Ireland ranks 11th out of 15 comparable EU countries in the overall SPI which assesses progress on the economy, society and environment. It is ranked 10th on the economy and sixth place in the social category.

“Unfortunately, Ireland scores at the bottom of the list for several environment SDGs indicating that some persistent sustainability issues must be addressed,” said economic and social analyst Colette Bennett with Social Justice Ireland (SJI).

Data for affordable and clean energy, responsible consumption and production, and climate action “point to the need to rebalance the goals of economic and social progress with sustaining the planet’s environment and resources as well as combatting climate change”, she added.

Delivering on the programme for government commitments on climate action becomes even more important as a result of these findings, the authors warn.

Dr Seán Healy of SJI said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the interdependence of our economic, social and natural spheres. It is obvious that they need to be approached in a holistic manner. Government has the opportunity to lead the way towards a new generation of politics shaped by the economic, social and environmental demands of a truly healthy society.”

“It should be recognised that we are performing well in many areas,” he accepted. However, the country was underperforming in others, particularly climate action, and this was dragging the overall ranking down.

While performance on growth domestic product (GDP) per capita and unemployment is rated good – the low score on the economy index is influenced by factors including low pay, and the proportion of young people not in employment, education or training.

Quality education

The need for further policy action on logistics and broadband capacities and percentage of GDP devoted to research and development also lowered the score in this economic category.

“We score highly on goals relating to education, peace and justice; less well on goals reflecting poverty, inequality, gender equality and health and wellbeing,” Dr Healy said.

The SPI, which includes all 17 goals set out by the UN, ranks Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy at the bottom. Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands top the rankings.

Ireland is in the top five for three SDGs: quality education; life on land; and peace, justice and strong institutions, Ms Bennett said.

“But several of the SDGs are in the middle of the rankings [reduced inequalities, good health and wellbeing, decent jobs and economic growth for example], implying there is much scope for improvement,” she added.

“If Government is serious about a commitment to a green new deal then serious policy changes are required now,” said SJI research and policy analyst Michelle Murphy.

Transition programme

This is the fifth edition of the SPI and Ireland has consistently ranked among the poorest performing countries on the environmental SDGs. “The programme for government commitment to more than halve our carbon emissions over the course of the decade rings hollow without political commitment and action,” she added.

A circular economy package for Ireland across all areas of economic activity; a levy on single-use plastics, investment in development of short supply chains – especially for farmers – and a comprehensive mitigation and transition programme to support communities and people in the transition to a low carbon society should be pursued, she suggested.

Sustainable agriculture policy and land management, with short supply chains for farmers and consumers, must form the basis of Ireland’s CAP programme, Ms Murphy said. “If not, then our climate and agricultural policies will be at odds with each other.”

Dr Catherine Kavanagh of University College Cork, one of the authors of the report, said gender equality had been achieved in education but not with women in parliament or serving in senior management positions – where numbers continue to be below the EU average.

“The UN states that 2021 marks the start of the decade of action to deliver the SDGs by 2030. It is a critical period to advance a shared vision and accelerate responses to the world’s greatest challenges,” Dr Healy concluded.

Market forces alone would not achieve the SDGs, he said. “Instead, directed actions by the public and private sector were needed to achieve the time-bound goals.”