We review Ireland's latest greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventory. We also consider the scale of the decarbonisation challenge ahead by comparing recent emissions projections for 2020, 2030 and beyond with looming EU and national targets.
Ireland's GHG emissions profile
2015 is the latest year for which data has been published by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Total economy-wide GHG emissions were almost 60 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) in 2015, which was 6.7% higher than they were in 1990 and 3.7% higher than 2014 levels.
The trend in national emissions since 1990 is illustrated below. Significantly, the 2014-2015 change is the largest single-year increase in emissions since the turn of the century and follows almost a decade of decreasing or more-or-less static emissions levels.
Ireland's GHG emissions 1990-2015 (source: EPA)
Emissions trading scheme (ETS)
The chart shows the split between GHG emissions that are within the scope of the EU emissions trading scheme (EU ETS) and those outside the scheme – the non-ETS sector. The Irish ETS sector comprises fossil-fuel power plants, energy-intensive industries and certain specified manufacturing processes, e.g. cement manufacturing.
The non-ETS sector is dominated by transport, agriculture, commercial businesses, the public sector, small industry and households. It accounts for approximately 70% of national emissions, which is high compared to most other European jurisdictions.
Agriculture accounted for one third of Ireland's total emissions in 2015, with energy and transport making up almost one fifth each and most of the balance coming from the residential (10%), manufacturing (8%) and industrial processes (3%) sectors. F-gases, public services, waste and commercial services each contributed less than 2%.
Ireland's GHG emissions by sector 2015 (source: EPA)
The largest absolute increases in GHG emissions in 2015 were in the energy (0.6 Mt CO2e) and transport (0.5 Mt CO2e) sectors. In the energy sector, there was a significant increase in electricity generated from renewables in 2015 (+23%), which brought the total renewable electricity contribution to 25%. However, there was also a 20% increase in coal use for power generation, as well as a modest increase in peat use (+1%) and a 4% decrease in gas consumption (for power generation).
The EU's 2020 target for GHG emissions reductions is 20% below 1990 levels. Each Member State has been allocated a binding national target in accordance with an effort-sharing agreement. These binding national targets apply only to the non-ETS sector.
Ireland's progress to date
Ireland has no economy-wide target for 2020. Its non-ETS target is a 20% reduction by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. This is equivalent to an emission limit of just under 38 Mt CO2e for the non-ETS sector for 2020. There are also binding annual targets for each year from 2013 to 2020. These are shown with a red line in the chart below. During this period, banking and borrowing rules apply – over or under achievement in any year can be aggregated across the period.
Ireland's GHG emissions 1990-2015 and binding targets 2013-2020 (source: EPA)
The EPA's final compliance data for 2013 and 2014 confirms that Ireland overachieved in these years, while the latest provisional figures indicate that this will also be the case for 2015 (43 Mt CO2e versus a target of over 44 Mt CO2e). The cumulative excess savings for these three years – amounting to over 10 Mt CO2e - can be banked for future years.
Because power generation is within the ETS sector, the significant progress made in generating electricity from renewables does not contribute to the achievement of Ireland’s emissions target. However, it does contribute to the achievement of Ireland’s (separate) renewable energy target. Emissions reductions from renewable transport and renewable heating contribute to both the emissions and renewable energy targets.
The outlook to 2020
The EPA has projected that Ireland’s non-ETS sector emissions will increase between 2015 and 2020, and will be only 4-6% below 2005 levels by 2020, compared to the 20% target. The projected emissions for the EPA’s more optimistic with additional measures scenario are shown in the chart below (in blue).
Ireland's GHG emissions & targets 1990-2020 (source: EPA)
Emissions are likely to exceed the binding target from 2016 onwards and the banked savings from the 2013-2015 period will be insufficient to offset the cumulative exceedance: Ireland will exceed its binding annual targets by between 11 and almost 14 Mt CO2e (cumulatively) over the period 2013-2020. The 2020 emissions are projected to be 19% above the target for the more optimistic scenario (shown above), and 22% above the target for the less optimistic with existing measures scenario.
While this will have financial implications for the State, the anticipated cost of non-compliance is not certain. It is likely that the majority of Member States will be compliant with their targets, so there could be a significant amount of excess allowances available to Ireland.
Ireland’s ETS sector is on track to reduce GHG emissions by more than 20% by 2020, compared to 2005 levels. However, as discussed above, the GHG performance of the ETS sector does not impact on Ireland's national emissions target.
Longer term: 2030 and 2050
The EU has adopted a target for 2030 of a 40% reduction below 1990 levels. The target is to be delivered collectively by the EU, with reductions in the ETS and non-ETS sectors amounting to 43% and 30% by 2030, compared to 2005, respectively.
Proposed 2030 target
The burden sharing of the non-ETS target between Member States is the subject of ongoing negotiations. Ireland’s relatively high GHG emissions from agriculture, compared to other Member States, will be a key focus of the negotiations from an Irish perspective.
In July 2016 the European Commission published its proposal for an effort sharing regulation for the period 2021-2030. The headline target proposed for Ireland is a 30% reduction from 2005 levels, by 2030. Targets for other Member States range from 0% (Bulgaria) to 40% (Luxembourg, Sweden).
The chart below shows the proposed 30% target, when applied to Ireland’s 2005 non-ETS emissions, alongside the EPA’s latest projection to 2030. The EPA estimates that the 2030 non-ETS emissions will be just 1%-3% below 2005 levels. Therefore, even if Ireland negotiates a lower target, bridging the gap between the projected emissions level and the 2030 target will be a formidable challenge.
Ireland's GHG emissions & targets 1990-2030 (source: EPA)
An analysis undertaken to inform the preparation of the Ireland's 2017 Draft National Mitigation Plan suggests that the cumulative projected gap to the proposed target over the period 2021-2030 will be 73 Mt CO2e for the period 2021-2030 (based on a ‘business as usual’ scenario).
The EU has a stated objective of reducing emissions by 80-95% by 2050, compared to 1990 levels, in the context of a wider effort by developed countries to achieve similar reductions.
Our final chart applies this mooted range of targeted reduction to Ireland’s 1990 emissions level to illustrate the potential extent of decarbonisation required.
Ireland's GHG emissions & targets 1990-2050 (source: EPA & European Commission)
The gap between the EPA’s combined projection for non-ETS and ETS emissions for 2035 (65 Mt CO2e) and the 2050 level is particularly noteworthy. It should be stressed that the 2050 level shown is not a formal national target. Ireland’s national policy position, Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development, sets out ‘a long-term vision of low-carbon transition based on -
- An aggregated reduction in CO2 emissions of at least 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050 across the electricity generation, built environment and transport sectors; and
- In parallel, an approach to carbon neutrality in the agriculture and land-use sector, including forestry, which does not compromise capacity for sustainable food production.’
Achieving reductions of this scale by 2050 presents a massive challenge for Ireland, especially in the context of the projections for increasing emissions out to 2035 (at least). Fundamental changes will be required in all sectors to enable the country to ’achieve transition to a competitive, low-carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050’
Ireland's energy targets
We discuss Ireland's progress towards its renewable energy and energy efficiency targets in a separate article.
This article on GHG emissions was comprehensively updated in May 2017 to incorporate analysis of the EPA's latest emissions inventory data (2015) and projections, both of which were published in April 2017. The previous version of the article analysed 2014 data.