Ireland’s clean, fresh air and lush green landscapes attract millions of visitors every year and our natural, unspoilt environment is famous throughout the world.
Caring and protecting our natural resources and habitat is important, and not just for Ireland, as pollution and climate change jeopardise the future of our planet.
The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment (DG Environment) is responsible for EU policy in this area. It was set up in 1973 to protect, preserve and improve Europe's environment for present and future generations.
The Commission proposes policies and legislation that protects natural habitats, keeps air and water clean, ensures proper waste disposal, improves knowledge about toxic chemicals, and helps businesses move towards a sustainable economy.
These policies are reflected in Irish legislation and DG Environment helps all Member States apply EU environmental law correctly.
European environment policy will be guided up to 2020 by an Environment Action Programme called Living Well, Within the Limits of our Planet, which was agreed during the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2013.
- Temperatures in Ireland have increased by about 0.8°C over the period 1900-2012, an average of about 0.07°C per decade. The increase during the period 1980-2008 was equivalent to 0.14 C per decade.
- An average sea level rise of just 0.5m to 1m by the end of the century, in combination with storm surge events, could result in as much as 1,000km2 of coastal lands around Ireland being inundated by the sea.
- Agriculture remains the single largest contributor to Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions at 33.1% of the total. Transport and energy industries are the second and third largest contributors at 19.8% and 19.7% respectively.
- Ireland’s soils are considered to be in good condition, with the exception of peat areas. Almost one-fifth of land in Ireland is categorised as peatland, which acts as a long-term carbon store. However, when it’s damaged this function is reversed, releasing carbon - the main contributor to climate change - into the environment.
- There are still significant problems with public drinking water supplies in Ireland, with some on long-term Boil Water Notices and the EPA’s Remedial Action List. Major investments are needed to make sure consumers are protected from pollution and health risks.
- Recent evidence shows that Ireland’s biodiversity capital is dwindling rapidly. The EU Biodiversity Strategy aims to halt biodiversity loss by 2020.
- Air quality in Ireland is generally good but between 150 and 200 deaths from lung cancer each year are linked to radon, a radioactive, odourless gas. The Euratom Drinking Water Directive (E-DWD) aims to protect EU citizens from this danger.
- A central plank of Ireland’s and Europe’s economic recovery is the development of a green, circular economy in sectors such as renewable energy, energy efficiency and waste and water management. The Renewable Energy Directive has set a target for Ireland to reach a 16% share of gross final energy from renewable sources by 2020.
- The quality of Ireland’s bathing waters is very high with just over 93% of identified bathing waters (130 of 140) meeting at least the minimum EU standards for ‘sufficient’ water quality over the period 2013-2016.
- Almost nine in ten Irish respondents to a Eurobarometer survey agreed that fighting climate change and using energy more efficiently can boost the EU economy and jobs (88%, EU average 79%) and that more public financial support should be given to the transition to clean energies (88%, EU average 79%).
It will ensure that Europe has secure, affordable and climate-friendly energy as well as creating new jobs and growth in the Circular Economy where waste and resource use is slashed.
The Energy Union strategy is made up of five closely related policy areas including energy efficiency, which will reduce Europe’s dependence on energy imports and reduce emissions.
Security, solidarity and trust between Member States will help diversify Europe’s sources of energy and make them more secure, while a fully-integrated internal energy market will allow a free flow of energy throughout the EU.
An ambitious climate policy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and makes the EU the world leader in renewables is a crucial element of the Energy Union and breakthroughs in low-carbon and clean energy will be supported by prioritising research, innovation and competitiveness.
Ireland has much to gain from opportunities presented by the Energy Union.
Power generation here currently relies essentially on gas, imported mainly from the UK and the country’s high dependency on imported oil and gas makes it particularly vulnerable to price and supply shocks.
Diversification of European gas sources will strengthen Ireland's energy security situation and drive down gas and electricity prices.
Irish wholesale electricity prices are above the EU average but electricity interconnections that allow energy to be transported across borders and enhanced cross-border trade will help control future costs.
When it comes to energy efficiency, Ireland is on track to meet its EU 2020 target set out in the National Energy Efficiency Action Plan.
However, additional efforts are needed to lower energy consumption further and then keep it stable when GDP increases again during the next five-year period.
Ireland has put in place effective environmental taxation measures including an emissions-based vehicle registration tax and a carbon tax.
However, the country is expected to miss its greenhouse gas emission target, due to stable emissions in agriculture, increasing emissions in transport and the restricted rollout of renewable energy sources.
The stimulation of renewable energy expansion through the 2030 EU Framework for Climate and Energy will be beneficial to Ireland, as renewables supply potential here far exceeds domestic demand.
The Energy Union's new strategy for Research and Innovation can support Ireland's progress on low-carbon technology development as the country is below EU average in terms of public support share allocated to research in energy and environment.
The European Commission has drawn up a list of projects of common interest (PCIs) that will benefit from financial support totalling €5.35 billion up to 2020.
PCIs that will improve Ireland’s connectivity include a Celtic Interconnector between France (La Martyre) and Ireland (Knockraha, Co Cork) and at least one new energy interconnection to the UK.
Over two-thirds of Irish respondents to a Eurobarometer survey see climate change as a ‘very serious’ problem (68%, EU average 74%) and more than one in eight see it as the most serious problem facing the world (13%, EU average 12%).
Almost all (96%) think it’s important that the Irish Government sets targets to increase the amount of renewable energy used by 2030.
The European Union has been at the forefront of global efforts to tackle climate change for more than two decades and has led by example through robust policy-making since 1991.
EU targets for progressively reducing greenhouse gas emissions have been set to achieve the transformation towards a low-carbon economy as detailed in the 2050 low-carbon roadmap.
The EU was also at the forefront of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change that saw world governments adopting the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal.
Governments agreed a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C.
There was also a commitment from governments to come together every five years to set more ambitious targets as required by science.
The EU, along with other developed countries, will continue to support climate action to reduce emissions and build resilience to climate change impacts in developing countries.
The global environment can’t be protected at a local level so cross-border cooperation between Member States and with the rest of the world is essential.
Traditional themes like protecting species and improving air and water quality by reducing pollution are still important but in recent years protecting the environment has also taken on a global dimension.
Nowadays, we need to ensure policies and funding decisions in other areas like agriculture, energy, transport and the economy take into account environmental consequences.
Protecting the environment and maintaining a competitive EU presence on the global marketplace can go hand in hand. In fact, good environment policy can play a key role in creating jobs and stimulating investment.
The seventh EAP 'Living Well, Within the Limits of our Planet' guides European environment policy until 2020 and EU leaders have also agreed a 2030 framework for climate and energy policies that aims to reduce greenhouse gas by 40% on 1990 levels and sets a target of at least 27% for renewable energy and energy savings by 2030.
A ‘roadmap’ detailing how the EU can reduce its emissions to 80-95% below 1990 levels by 2050 has also been set out.
The European Commission can, through the European Court of Justice, take legal action against a Member State that fails to implement environment legislation correctly.
Legal action is a last resort, as the Commission attaches greater importance to helping Member States, both practically and financially, with effective implementation.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) collects national data on environmental issues and is tasked with helping the EU and its Member States make informed decisions about improving the environment and integrating environmental considerations into economic policies.
The European Commission has also made resource efficiency one of the flagship initiatives of its 2020 strategy for the environment. This means producing more value with less input, using resources in a sustainable way and managing them more efficiently throughout their life cycle.
Ireland has had mixed results in implementing and enforcing environmental legislation.
Despite progress in several areas, including waste recycling and reducing emissions from industrial facilities, the country is struggling to meet agreed EU targets due to increasing emissions in agriculture and transport.
Overall, total emissions are projected to be between 6% and 11% below 2005 levels in 2020 but the target is a 20% reduction.
Compliance needs to improve in drinking water, urban waste water treatment, river basin district plans and special areas of conservation.
However, Ireland’s major reform of the waste sector, closing illegal landfills and financing extensive clean-up and remediation works has received widespread praise.
The reforms were carried out in close cooperation with the Commission, resulting in a system that ensures a high level of compliance with EU waste legislation.
Ireland also has better air quality than most countries in Europe, but some key challenges remain. Traffic is the main cause of air quality problems in larger towns and cities while there are problems in some small Irish towns that have a high dependence on coal, turf and wood for home heating.
The European Commission has asked Ireland to take urgent action to protect Irish peat bog habitats,
The Commission believes bans on turf cutting in 56 active raised bogs introduced in 2010 and 2011 haven’t been met with an effective response and it remains a contentious issue in Ireland.
Ireland is responding, and from 2011-2015 work on restoring some 685 hectares of raised bogs on 17 Coillte owned sites across seven counties was undertaken as part of a major nature conservation project.
‘Demonstrating Best Practice in Raised Bog Restoration in Ireland’ was jointly funded by the European Commission's DG Environment, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Coillte under the EU LIFE Nature Programme.
The LIFE Programme is also currently helping fund The Living Bog Project in Clara, Co Offaly, Ireland’s largest single bog restoration project, that will see an area of raised bog the equivalent in size to 7,000 Croke Parks brought back to life.
Funding for EU Environmental policy implementation comes from the LIFE programme. Every year a call for project proposals is launched covering the LIFE programme’s priority areas.
Since 1992, a total of 58 projects have been co-financed in Ireland including 38 on environmental innovation and 20 on nature conservation.
These projects represent a total investment of €130 million, of which €58 million was contributed by the European Union.
The LIFE programme for 2014-2020 has a total budget for the period of €3.5 billion and has sub-programmes for the environment and climate action.
Projects in Ireland currently benefiting from LIFE funding include KerryLIFE, which supports local communities in the Caragh and Kerry Blackwater areas to help restore populations of freshwater pearl mussels.
Recently completed projects include the GeoPark Life Project that worked at strengthening the integration of tourism and natural heritage in the Burren region and WISER LIFE in Ballymun, Dublin, which used funding worth €3.6 million to transform an unused boiler house into The Rediscovery Centre, which demonstrates best practice in waste reuse and preparation for reuse.
In May 2017, the BurrenLIFE project received a special award from the European Commission, recognising it as the best ever LIFE project in the 25-year history of the programme. The prize was awarded in the Nature and Biodiversity Category.
The LIFE+ Programme is run by the European Commission and Irish applications for funding are made by submitting an online proposal through the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
- CLIMATE CHANGE: The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill 2015 sets out Ireland’s objective of transitioning to a low carbon, climate resilient and environmentally sustainable economy in the period up to 2050. The bill calls for a National Mitigation Plan (NMP) to be published every five years to bring a clear focus to any challenges to track climate action steps already underway. Ireland has also begun a National Dialogue on Climate Action.
- AIR QUALITY: Ambient air quality monitoring and assessment in Ireland meets all EU air quality standards but there are still localised issues. Ireland banned bituminous (smoky) coal in all cities and major towns and the phasing out of lead in petrol and improved vehicle emission standards are good examples of European policy changes that have improved the air we breathe.
However, in urban areas such as Dublin and Cork, levels of nitrogen dioxide are close to EU limits as a result of exhaust emissions from vehicles.
Levels of particulate matter (PM) in smaller towns that do not have a smoky coal ban can also be high. Ireland needs to continue to rigorously control industrial emissions of pollutants and increase the use of alternatives to the private car.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) estimates that poor air quality contributes to more than 400,000 premature deaths in Europe each year. In Ireland the premature deaths attributable to air pollution annually are estimated at 1,200.
- WASTE: To comply with a ruling by the European Court of Justice, Ireland implemented a major reform of its waste sector, closed illegal landfills and financed costly clean-up and remediation works.
This exercise transformed the waste sector in Ireland, and provided useful lessons for other countries.
However, Ireland still struggles to meet EU targets due to insufficient coverage of households by door-to-door separate collections of waste and lack of incentives to move waste management away from treatment and towards prevention and recycling.
Full implementation of existing EU legislation could create more than 6,100 jobs in Ireland and increase the annual turnover of the waste sector by over €640 million.
- WATER QUALITY: Water quality has been identified as being strategically important to Ireland’s economy, and it’s an area that needs to be improved on.
Major investments in infrastructure will be needed in order to remain compliant with the Water Framework Directive, the Drinking Water Directive and the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.
Ireland also needs to end direct discharges of waste water and ensure it’s collected and appropriately treated throughout the country.
The European Commission is taking Ireland to the Court of Justice of the EU for its failure to ensure that urban waste water in a number of areas is adequately collected and treated to prevent serious risks to human health and the environment.
- BIODIVERSITY: Natura 2000 is the largest coordinated network of protected areas in the world and 13.13% of the national land area of Ireland is covered by it.
It’s key to the long- term protection, conservation and survival of Europe's most valuable and threatened species and habitats.
EU Member States are obliged to designate Sites of Community Interest (SCIs) as Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) but Ireland has failed to make sufficient progress on this key objective.
The Commission says Ireland needs to complete the Natura 2000 designation process, finalise the National Raised Bog SAC Management Plan and, when it comes to bird wildlife, address the serious decline of waders, especially the Curlew, which is at risk of extinction from Ireland as a breeding species.