During 2021, Ireland made a transformational change in terms of climate ambition.
The Oireachtas voted in July 2021 overwhelmingly to enact new legislation that sets a target to halve our greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) by 2030, equating to the second highest level of climate mitigation ambitions in the world over this period, second only to Denmark.
Despite this ambition however, new analysis indicates Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions were approximately 5 per cent higher than 2020 levels meaning we are not on track to meet climate goals.
What happened in 2021 regarding GHG emissions data for Ireland?
This 5 per cent growth in GHGs comes at a time when the scientific, societal, political and economic case to reduce fossil fuel use and associated emissions has never been so clear. The rapid increase in oil, gas and electricity prices, the need to reduce our dependence on Russian fuel and recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change all point to the urgent need to reduce fossil fuel usage.
The estimates are more robust for energy-related emissions, ie emissions associated with electricity, transport and heat; the latter covering heating in homes and non-residential buildings and process heat in industry.
Energy-related emissions collectively represent about half of total greenhouse gas emissions, and draw on monthly energy data published by Sustainable energy Authority of Ireland.
The biggest single emissions increase was seen in electricity generation with nearly a 2 million tonnes (or 25 per cent) increase in 2021 over 2020. This is particularly worrying as this sector has been the one making significant progress over the past 15 years, with emissions nearly being halved between 2005 and 2020.
Changes in the electricity generation fuel mix, in particular a resurgence of coal usage for power generation, driven by the unavailability of gas-fired power plants, relatively low availability of wind energy during 2021, and international commodity prices.
Coal use has an outsized impact on emissions in the power sector because of its high carbon content. Producing a unit of electricity from coal, generates twice as many emissions as generating a unit from natural gas. In 2021, coal generated just 11 per cent of electricity but was responsible for 30 per cent of the sectors emissions. Reducing and removing coal from the power sector mix is key to meeting climate goals.
Ireland also saw an increase in electricity consumption in 2021, a key driver here being the growth in electricity use by data centres.
There was also an increase in transport emissions in 2021 with an increase of half a million tonnes corresponding to a 6 per cent growth within the sector. This was a result of increased economic and societal activity after the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions as we returned to previous driving habits and petrol and diesel fuel sales returned to pre-pandemic levels.
The first three months of 2021 also saw restrictions to transport relating to the pandemic – and if we remove this period from the analysis, the emissions growth for transport was nearly 20 per cent.
Emissions associated with heat were similar in 2021 to 202 levels. This suggests very limited visible progress arising from retrofitting and also that absence of growth in renewable heat.
The data underpinning emissions in agriculture indicate growth in this sector. While cattle numbers in 2021 are similar to 2020, there was an increase in dairy cows and a similar reduction in beef cattle. Emissions per cow are greater for dairy cows, which points to an overall increase in emissions.
Why is all this significant?
Ireland enacted new legislation last year that set a target to achieve a 51 per cent reduction in greenhouse emissions by the year 2030 relative to 2018 levels.
The legislation also provided for the establishment of carbon budgets as a key regulatory instrument in achieving the emissions reductions. This makes the target even more challenging as carbon budgets limit the total cumulative amount of emissions over five-year periods, rather than just having a focus on the final year.
Cumulative emissions is the correct way to measure climate action because it reflects climate science which shows that it is the build up of emissions in the atmosphere that drives global temperature increase rather than emissions at some future point in time.
The Oireachtas recently agreed the carbon budget for the period 2021-2025 should not exceed 295 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. However these early estimates indicate that 2021 values are above the trajectory for reductions necessary to align with the budgets.
Figure 1 shows an indicative pathway to ensure greenhouse gas emissions remain within the carbon budget limits. This pathway indicates that emissions in 2021 should not exceed 65 million tonnes, but these early estimates indicate emissions were over a million tonnes higher that the target amount.
Ireland’s shortfall in emissions reduction in 2021 is problematic in two ways. Firstly, it is worth noting that emissions in early 2021 were also impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, indicating the country is further off track to meet the first carbon budget than these numbers suggest.
Secondly, in the context of carbon budgets, early action matters and early reductions add up to bigger savings later. Conversely, delayed action also matters and the early failings we are seeing here add up to more stringent emissions cuts over the remaining 2022-2025 period.
What does this mean?
The Covid-19 pandemic and associated slowdown of the economy throughout 2020 resulted in Ireland’s emissions being the lowest in 27 years as we used our cars less and consumed less energy.
During 2021, Ireland’s emissions grew by 5 per cent above 2020 levels, with this increase in greenhouse gas emissions across the economy being at odds with our ambition to reduce them urgently.
This raises key questions for Ireland going forward.
For the Government the figures reinforce the urgency needed to reduce emissions and point to policy actions that must be taken for the successful delivery of Ireland’s climate goals, but also for overlapping actions that will reduce Ireland significant reliance on fossil fuels – a reliance that is deeply exposed us to record energy prices across the economy this year.
The most important policy element is action and specifically, early action. Time is of the essence and early interventions have a bigger cumulative return that major actions later in the decade.
Demand reduction and energy conservation is needed. A 10 per cent reduction in energy consumption across the economy delivers the same supply benefit as doubling the amount of wind capacity in Ireland, and while both are needed conservation will deliver now, reducing our exposure to energy prices, reducing fossil fuel use, and reducing emissions.
For the power sector a clear exit strategy for coal must be developed, a strategy that limits its use in the context of our climate requirement and energy security needs.
In addition, the increase in emissions illustrates the need to shift focus away from percentage of renewable energy supply towards emissions reduction. There is a need to focus on what fuels provide the share of electricity not met by renewables, and to focus on total electricity demand.
Ireland has always scored high in terms of climate ambition, but from this year action and delivery are the only metrics that matter.
Dr Paul Deane is senior research fellow in clean energy futures and Brian Ó Gallachóir is professor of energy engineering at University College Cork