Every four years the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issues a report on the status of the environment in the Republic of Ireland (RoI). In June it issued Ireland’s Environment 2012: An Assessment (IE2012). Data on which the report is based is collected and published throughout the intervening four years but the report provides an opportunity for EPA and the public to step back, take a broad view of conditions in the environment, and assess where we stand on protecting our natural resources. See Sources for earlier coverage in irish environment on some of these interim EPA reports.
For the IE2012, EPA smartly arranged a day-long conference, open to the public and at no cost, with an impressive panel of visiting and local speakers, to address various data and issues raised by the report. Its website also provides a variety of documents and video presentations that easily highlight many of the findings in this voluminous report. Both the online media and the conference make the IE2012 report much more accessible to national and local officials and managers, as well as to the wider public, all of whom are instrumental in seeing that any environmental protection efforts continue.
The cliché at the conference was: Some good things, some work still to do. Here we will highlight some of the pluses and minuses of environmental conditions in the RoI as revealed by the IE2012.
Generally the air in Ireland is among the cleanest in the European Union (EU), as it should be in light of Ireland’s geographic position on the Atlantic, with fresh westerly winds, few large cities, and little current or historic heavy industry. There are several exceptions. The levels of nitrogen dioxide (NOx) in Dublin and Cork are close to EU standards (limit values) as a result of increased road transport. There has been some improvement with levels of particulate matter (PM) (see “Particulate Matter” in iePEDIA section of irish environment) in large cities because of advances in the technology, and regulations, controlling vehicle exhaust emissions. This same level of improvement has not been found in smaller cities where reliance on domestic solid fuel emissions, particularly coal, and less access to natural gas supplies, has undermined any reduction from improvements to vehicle exhausts. Recently the Minister for the Environment announced that the ban on smoky coal applicable in many larger cities for decades is to be extended to seven provincial towns, but not nationwide.
New EU air quality standards for the smaller forms of PM, known as PM2.5, that require lower levels of emissions will put pressure on the government to provide more protections. EPA does not offer any concrete suggestions on how Ireland is going to meet these stricter standards. While the government will need to develop the necessary policies and regulations, it would be helpful for an independent agency like the EPA to point the way forward, for the public as well as for the government.
While the air in Ireland in most areas is fresh and visibly clean most of the time, what we do not see is not so healthy, namely greenhouse gases (GHGs).
Long-term plans for reducing GHG emissions and moving to a low-carbon economy are marked by certain targets set by the EU. Ireland’s obligation under the EU commitment to the Kyoto Protocol was not onerous — a 13% increase over 1990 levels in GHGs by 2012 — and it will meet that obligation. The next step is the EU Climate and Energy Package, implemented by the Commission’s Effort Sharing Decision (ESD), under which Ireland is obligated to reduce its GHG emissions by 20% as of 2020 (relative to 2005) for sectors not included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, the EU cap-and-trade system. Looming on the horizon is the EU goal to reduce GHG emissions by 80% in 2050.
Now things are going to get very tough for Ireland to meet these obligations. In the IE2012 report, EPA already estimates that Ireland will exceed its allocated limit under the ESD by 2017. Ireland’s apparent inability to meet its future obligations for GHG reductions follows from the heavy emissions from its transport and agriculture sectors.
Emissions from transport were 127% higher in 2007 than in 1990 but decreased by 20% since 2007, primarily because of the economic recession and progressive changes in the taxing system that favor lower-emission vehicles. That is still a 100% increase over 1990. With any economic recovery, if people and goods continue to move by cars and trucks, then transport emissions will likely rise once again.
If controlling transport emissions offer little hope, perhaps Ireland has clear plans for reducing agriculture emissions. At first glance it looks as if there is hope. GHGs, particularly methane and nitrous oxides (NOx), from agricultural activities peaked in 1998 and have decreased below 1990 over the past decade, largely as a result of the EU Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) which led to fewer cows and less fertilizer use. But that decrease has been minimal and the agriculture sector still accounts for about 30% of Ireland’s total GHG emissions, the highest in the EU.
With transport there are proven technologies for making vehicles more fuel-efficient or replacing oil with electric energy, assuming the energy grid is de-carbonised. Getting cows to produce less methane is not so easy.
And what is the government’s plan to address this serious obstacle to meeting its obligations? Under the Harvest 2020 proposal, it is planning on doubling milk production starting in 2015. Harvest 2020 is the proposed action variously described as an industry-led plan or as a policy of the government to increase milk production by 50% starting in 2015, when EU milk production quotas are lifted. It also calls for a substantial growth in forestry and fish farm productions. The Minister for Agriculture has apparently taken the position that Harvest 2020 is not a government plan or policy and does not require a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), despite the fact most interested parties have proposed a SEA for Harvest 2020.
More milk cows, more methane, less compliance with EU obligations. Just how extensively that doubling of milk production will impact the level of GHG emissions remains deeply unclear. The EPA report states that the estimated increase will be 7% but the authority for that estimate is unclear. It certainly is counterintuitive. If a 50% increase in milk production will result in only a 7% increase in GHG emissions, then the government needs to explain the basis for such an estimate, and what happens if the estimate is significantly wrong.
While Ireland’s air is better than in most EU countries, with the caveat about Ireland’s less than progressive performance in addressing GHG emissions, its water is mediocre. While 70% to 85% of rivers and groundwater meet EU standards for good status, itself nothing to write home about, less than 50% of lakes and transitional and coastal waters meet EU standards for good or high. And those EU standards are going to get increasingly more stringent under the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Moreover, the WFD criteria do not include microbiological elements in the assessment of good or high status. If they did, the status of Ireland’s water bodies would register as more degraded since 40% of well and spring waters were polluted by microbial pathogens, a danger to drinking water.
The major causes of the lack of clean waters are no secret and they have persisted for decades: agricultural run-off and discharges from municipal waste water treatment works. Agriculture, for instance, accounts for 47% of suspected causes of pollution at river sites, and municipal sources for 37.5% of causes. In contrast, industry accounts for only 4% of causes.
Several developments offer some encouragement. As required by the WFD, Ireland has put together River Basin Management Plans that set objectives for preserving or improving water bodies across the island and that identify Programmes of Measures to accomplish those objectives. With the data that will continue to be generated, and the clear objectives, there is hope that the local authorities will have the tools to do what is necessary. Whether there will be any money to do what is necessary is another matter.
Another encouragement is the licensing and certification program now being implemented by EPA for municipal waste water treatment works. The local authorities did not have the resources, in terms of staffing and finances, to properly maintain or upgrade such facilities and EPA’s expertise should help efforts to control these discharges. Again where the money to upgrade these facilities will come from is another matter.
Finally, the establishment of a Water Authority, and the registration and eventual inspections of private septic and other waste systems, will also hopefully professionalize the administration of water services in Ireland.
Rearing its head over these advances is, once again, the spectre of Harvest 2020. If agricultural run-off has been and continues to be one of the primary sources of water pollution in Ireland, then 50% more dairy production may well double that problem. The government ought not be allowed to proceed with Harvest 2020 until strict statutory and regulatory provisions are in place to control these agricultural impacts. In addition, stringent enforcement tools need to be made available to EPA, with staff and financial resources to carry out the enforcement.
An indication of how poorly Ireland is managing its biodiversity is the estimate by EPA that only 7% of habitats and 39% of species protected under the EU Habitats Directive are in a favorable status. The poor record is reflected further in the precipitous decline in farmland breeding bird populations across Ireland. Yet Ireland still is falling behind as the European Commission considers Ireland derelict in its obligation to designate Natura 2000 sites.
Pressures on Ireland’s habitats and species come from peat cutting, some of it still being done illegally, wetland drainage, infrastructure development, animal grazing, invasive species, and even recreational use of land. Once again, one has to ask what effects there will be on biodiversity in Ireland if the Harvest 2020 government plan is allowed to go forward. Certainly the Irish government has to answer this question.
A positive note is sounded by the successful efforts to reintroduce golden eagles, white-tailed eagles and red kites in Ireland.
Ireland has fewer contaminated land problems than industrialised countries, and its soils seem to be in fairly good condition, although there exists little hard data to confirm the condition of Irish soils. The exceptions are peatlands that continue to be destroyed with an astonishing 95% of all peatland in a degraded state, and abandoned mine sites that continue to represent a threat to local water supplies. There is still far more land than artificial surfaces, when compared with other EU countries, and agriculture remains the dominant land use with 66% of land used for agriculture, 20% for peatlands or wetlands, 10% for forested areas, and only 2% for artificial surfaces. Land use has undergone significant changes from the widespread construction of single rural dwellings in the countryside, between 1990 and 2007, with 32% of these dwellings having independent waste water treatment systems.
Once again it is Harvest 2020 that represents the great challenge to preserving the reasonably good soil conditions in Ireland.
Ireland has been fairly successful in complying with its EU requirements for recycling as it has met its targets for recycling waste packaging, electronics, household papers, metals, plastics, and glass, and has met the initial requirement under the EU Landfill Directive for diversion of biodegradable waste. Ireland has failed to meet its obligations for end-of-life vehicles.
Whatever success can be attributed to the recycling program, much of the credit can be attributed to the increasing levy on landfill disposal fees, an instance where a pricing mechanism has had a strong, positive influence in moving people to a more environmentally sustainable practice.
While recycling is making sharp advances, landfill spaces are very quickly disappearing. At the moment there is only 12 years capacity for landfills in Ireland. For instance, there is now no available landfill in County Donegal. Moreover, Ireland continues to export much of its hazardous wastes.
Environment, Economy and Health
The 2012 State of the Environment report contains two chapters not present in the 2008 report: one on the “Environment and the Economy” (#8), and a chapter on “Environment and Health” (#9). The chapter on the environment and economy addresses the need for a resource-efficient and green economy, and the need to tie various sectors, including energy, agriculture and transport, into such an economy. The report covers a number of areas (waste, water, biodiversity, energy, transport) and outlines how if we continue to use natural resources at the present pace, many of the resources will be gone in the near future and such unsustainable growth will impede economic recovery. EPA also points out how economic incentives, such as the carbon tax and vehicle registration and road taxes, can change behavior and improve resource efficiency.
EPA notes that the government policy, Harvest 2020, presents substantial risks to Ireland’s efforts to reduce GHG emissions and to protect water resources as required under the EU Water Framework Directive. While Harvest 2020 purports to limit the growth in GHG emissions, through “sustainable intensification,” EPA rightfully suggests that “such an approach is unlikely to deliver the deep emission reductions that are required to reduce national emissions.” At 111. And the specifics of “sustainable intensification” remain elusive.
On the link between the environment and health, EPA points out that while economic issues often dominate, especially in times of trouble, “health is wealth.” Globally, environmental hazards account for 25% of all diseases and 13 million deaths could be prevented by improving environmental quality, especially among vulnerable groups.
The report covers various ways health can be improved by advancing environmental quality and implementing legislation in areas such as green spaces, cleaner water, control over polluted waste waters, and cleaner air.
An Emerging Issue: Fracking
Besides Harvest 2020, the other issue that likely will dominate our conversation over the next several years is fracking. Fracking is the exploration for and extraction of natural gas from shale formations several thousand feet below the surface, and all associated operations (handling waste water, trucking, use of large volumes of water). (See entry on “Hydraulic Fracturing,” in the iePEDIA section of irish environment). It is likely that applications for exploration and/or extraction of shale gas formations will be filed soon, both in RoI and Northern Ireland.
Fracking and Harvest 2020 are not only the dominant issues but they are connected in the sense that activities associated with both projects — doubling milk production and extracting natural gas— are capable of releasing substantial levels of methane, a GHG, into the Irish and global environment. Releasing large volumes of methane to the environment is never a useful activity, and it is particularly problematic when international efforts are focusing on aggressively reducing methane and other so-called “short-lived” GHG emissions in light of the blockage to any meaningful international consensus on whether or how to reduce long-lived GHGs like carbon dioxide (CO2).
If fracking, and Harvest 2020, are pursued by the Irish government, with substantial increases in methane and other GHG emissions, then once again it looks as if Ireland may well be on its way to enhancing its reputation as one of the more recalcitrant EU countries when it comes to taking progressive actions to protect the environment.
RoI Environmental Protection Agency, Ireland’s Environment 2012 – An Assessment (June 2012) www.epa.ie/downloads/pubs/indicators/name,33606,en.html
“Ban on smoky coal to be extended to seven provincial towns,” Irish Times (July 11. 2012).
Earlier Reports covering aspects of Ireland’s environment:
“Water Pollution Enforcement in Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland,” irish environment (March 2010).
“Historic Mine Sites,” irish environment (May 2010).
“Ireland’s Water Quality: Groundwater OK, Surface Waters 50% Good, 50% Not So Good,” irish environment (May 2011).
“BOGLAND: An Assessment,” irish environment (November 2011).