Ireland, Scotland and carbon emissions

Sir, – Fintan O'Toole ("'Bomb the economy' is the only climate strategy that's worked in Ireland", Opinion & Analysis, May 16th) makes some good points, particularly regarding forestry, but his comparisons of Ireland with Scotland regarding carbon emissions is not a comparison of equals.

Scotland, with very large uninhabited highland areas of minimal agricultural value, around 300 peaks over 900m in height, 50 major rivers, and high precipitation levels is prime terrain for both wind and hydro-electricity. Scotland produces 85 per cent of all the hydroelectric power generated in the whole of the UK, and the combination of wind and hydroelectricity contributes 50 per cent of Scotland’s energy needs on average, with 42 per cent coming from nuclear power.

With no nuclear and limited scope for hydroelectric power, Ireland’s only real option for large-scale renewable energy is wind, and on that front Ireland has made headway. While the much lower availability of good on-shore sites for wind-farms and much greater planning constraints have hampered Ireland’s capacity to date, wind turbine numbers have steadily increased and are now the second largest source of Ireland’s power, after natural gas. At one point in February of this year wind was able to generate 66 per cent of Ireland’s energy needs, but average production is below 30 per cent.

However, the critical factor that makes Ireland different from Scotland is growth. Ireland’s population increased by over 31 per cent between 1996 and 2016, with an even greater growth in domestic and commercial energy demands and in the numbers of vehicles on our roads. Each new renewable scheme we roll out enables us to keep up with the growth in demand, but unless we can implement wind farms much more rapidly, this will continue to a have limited effect in reducing reliance on traditional sources of power. Conversely, Scotland’s population increased by just 6 per cent over the same period, meaning that every new hydro or wind scheme there has been able to replace traditional power sources. Scotland’s overall emissions thus have reduced while Ireland’s have remained high, despite huge investment in renewables by both countries.


A core component in Ireland’s carbon emission problem – and indeed of the housing problem, the healthcare problem and many other problems – is 25 years of uninterrupted rapid population growth. Ireland’s story with regard to growth is unique in Europe and is set to continue for the foreseeable future too.

Unless commentators recognise and account for this in their arguments, then every time they compare Ireland to one of our European neighbours they are comparing apples with oranges.

Nevertheless your columnist is right that Ireland has lacked strong leadership in the face of climate change.

Even in light of the constraints of geography and economics, government decisions and policies in many aspects in recent years have seemed scattershot or diluted by local or short-term electoral concerns. Tactical responses and plans have been the order of the day, and there is little sign of any overarching multi-decade strategy that people can buy into for the long term.

A prime example is the decision to spend billions on a broadband scheme that will not only generate significant carbon emissions in itself, but will reinforce and incentivise less sustainable modes of living and working across the country. That this was done in a futile attempt to win votes in an election at which the Government lost its mandate anyway further accentuates the sense of farce. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 7.