Ireland's losing battle to be Climate Neutral

Image Credit: Sinéad Mohan

Jade Norton examines Ireland’s latest Climate Bill and discusses some of the causes of carbon emissions and ways to offset them.

Ireland’s Climate Bill aims to cut emissions and deliver a climate-resilient and climate neutral economy all by 2050. It contains systems that if enacted properly will bring carbon emissions to an all-time low within 5 years. But, in response, an expert environmental and planning lawyer in the UCD Sutherland School of Law, Dr Andrew Jackson, has delivered a verdict that the Climate Bill is ‘weak’ and not urgent enough to achieve its goals. In the bill, there are no legal obligations which require the Government to ensure that carbon budgets and targets are met, or “there is equally no obligation to ensure that climate action plans are consistent with adopted carbon budgets” Jackson states. The climate plans need greater action and understanding in line with other EU states. Currently, Ireland is one of the lowest in the EU for meeting its 2020 climate and renewable energy targets and this bill does not seem to be aiming to change that.

As of 2019, Ireland had the highest per-capita emissions of any member state due to its failure to decarbonise sectors such as dairy farming and road transport. It has also been required to pay for the states’ excess carbon emissions which amounted to €150 million in 2019 at a rate of 100 euro per excess tonne.

Ireland's emission reductions are all done under the EU Effort Sharing Regulation (ESR) which aims to deliver a 10% reduction in total EU emissions, which relates to an 11-20% reduction per country during 2013-2020 and ~30% from 2021-2030. The 2020 Climate Action Bill aims to perform under the objective specified in Article 2 of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the parent of the 2015 Paris Agreement whose aim is to cap the global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels. All these objectives are set to culminate in the achievement of a climate-neutral EU by 2050 if all nations contribute.

Activities that are climate neutral do not put a strain on the climate, they do not create greenhouse gases. As many industrialised processes have high emission levels, these are often offset by individuals and organisations by supporting international climate protection projects. Offsetting is a term for measures that can be bought to compensate for emissions that are unavoidable. For individuals in applicable European countries, this involves purchasing certified emission reductions (CERs) which give money directly to gas mitigation projects in developing countries allowing the individual to claim their environmental benefit to offset their own. These projects reduce emissions with a variety of methods including replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, reducing energy consumption, and capturing already released carbon. This scheme is not currently available in Ireland but there are organisations that you can donate to that will plant trees on your behalf as a measure of carbon offsetting.

The offsetting of carbon emissions has come under certain criticism as some believe that the system can encourage a mindset of buying-away your environmental responsibilities and offsetting to validate your behaviour. Producing excess greenhouse gases will always be detrimental to the climate and rather than fixing the hole after it has been created, it can be more beneficial to prevent its initial formation that may have other detrimental side effects that high emission activity contributes to.

Greenhouse gases include 

These gases can stay in the atmosphere for anything ranging from a few years to up to thousands of years. As they remain in the atmosphere these gases become mixed, meaning that their measurements in the atmosphere are consistent around the world, regardless of the source of the emissions. These gases affect the climate by absorbing energy that would otherwise be released into space, in the same way that a blanket keeps warmth in at night. But, depending on the thickness of the blanket the level of warmth will change and this is the same concept as the atmosphere that is around the Earth. The global warming potential of gases vary depending on how long they stay in the atmosphere and their potential to absorb energy, for instance, fluorinated gases in the atmosphere can have global warming potentials over 10,000 times that of carbon dioxide.

The results of the Environmental Protection Agency 2020 Emissions Report show that Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 4.5% during 2019. This is the largest reduction in emissions since 2001, however, this figure will still exceed Ireland’s annual emissions target by 6.98 Megatonnes which is equivalent to 1500 wind turbines running for a year. The EPA does not believe that Ireland will reach its 2020 targets either, despite the impact of Covid-19, as the main contributors of high emissions have not been largely affected.

Agriculture, Energy Industries and Transport make up 70% of all Ireland’s emissions and these are industries that often require the push of legal obligations for change to occur. According to the EPA, current plans will expect to show a significant reduction in the energy industry by 2030 due to the movement towards renewable energy. The transport industry is set to reduce emissions by 38% if the aims of the climate action plan are enacted which would lead to almost 1 million electric vehicles in circulation by 2030.

The current Climate Bill may not specify how it will reduce emissions, but it does aim to complete the aims of Article 2 and honour the Paris Agreement. Despite a weak start, there is still room for amendments as the bill requires annual climate action plans that will adjust to the changing climate and hopefully prevent more drastic deterioration.