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 is being 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 since 1900, 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.
- Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions are projected to increase and at best the country will only achieve a 1% reduction by 2020 compared to a target of 20%. According to EPA projections, Ireland is not on the right trajectory to meeting 2030 or 2050 targets.
- Agriculture remains the single largest contributor to Ireland’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions at 33.3% of the total. Transport and energy industries are the second and third largest contributors at 19.8% and 19.3% respectively.
- Waste water treatment at 28 of Ireland’s 179 large towns and cities failed to meet standards set to prevent pollution and protect public health in 2017 according to an EPA report on Urban Waste Water Treatment.
- Ireland’s soils are 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.
- The quality of drinking water in Irish public supplies had a microbiological compliance at 99.9% and chemical compliance at 99.6% in 2017. There were 41 people on a boil notice at the end of 2017 compared to 5,654 at the end of 2016. However, the EPA’s Remedial Action List (RAL) showed 63 supplies that collectively supply water to 555,689 consumers had serious deficiencies in January 2019.
- Recent evidence shows that Ireland’s biodiversity capital is dwindling and is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The EU Biodiversity Strategy aims to halt biodiversity loss.
- According to the latest European bathing water quality report, 71.8% of Irish swimming sites monitored in 2017 met the European Union's highest and most stringent 'excellent' quality standard for waters mostly free from pollutants. The EU average was 85%.
- Total renewable energy increased in Ireland by 19% in 2017. Coal use decreased by 20% over the same period.
The Energy Union is a European priority project, one of 10 political priorities identified by the Juncker Commission.
It is helping 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 lower harmful 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.
Ambitious climate strategies and targets that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make 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.
A Circular Economy will boost Europe's competitiveness, modernise its economy and industry to create jobs, protect the environment and generate sustainable growth.
All 54 actions outlined in the action plan have now been delivered or are being implemented and it can be considered completed.
In 2016, sectors relevant to the circular economy employed more than four million workers, a 6% increase compared to 2012.
In 2016, circular activities such as repair, reuse or recycling generated almost €147 billion and accounted for around €17.5 billion worth of investments.
The EU Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy aims to have all plastic packaging placed on the EU market reusable or recyclable by 2030.
It’s an ambitious target but the European Commission has launched the Circular Plastics Alliance of key industry stakeholders supplying and using recycled plastics to help close the gap between supply and demand for recycled plastics.
Other actions that will help accelerate the transition to a circular economy include the Circular Economy Finance Support Platform, which will stimulate investments, and a revised waste legislative framework to modernise waste management systems.
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%).
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.
In 2018 the European Commission adopted a strategic long-term vision for a prosperous, modern, competitive and climate-neutral Europe by 2050.
The strategy opens a debate on how the EU should prepare itself towards the 2050 target and while the goal is feasible from technological, economic and social perspectives, it requires deep societal and economic transformations within a generation.
The Commission has assessed pathways that can achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions of 80% by 2050, which is in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change that saw world governments adopting the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal.
All Member States have submitted draft National Climate and Energy Plans (NCEPs), which will be monitored for progress by the Commission.
This first draft of Ireland’s NECP takes into account energy and climate policies developed to date while the National Climate Policy states the objective of achieving the transition to a competitive, low carbon, climate-resilient and environmentally sustainable economy by 2050.
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 locally are still important but protecting the environment has to be coordinated globally.
Europe needs to ensure policies and funding decisions in areas like agriculture, energy, transport and the economy take into account environmental consequences.
The seventh EAP 'Living Well, Within the Limits of our Planet' guides European environment policy until 2020 and EU leaders have already agreed on a climate and energy framework that aims to reduce greenhouse gas by 40% on 1990 levels and sets targets of a 32% share for renewable energy and a 32.5% improvement in energy efficiency by 2030.
The European Commission has also presented a long-term strategy detailing how the EU can further reduce its emissions to 80-95% below 1990 levels by 2050.
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.
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.
The EU has set targets to increase the use of ‘green’ energy sources. Ireland's target is for renewable energy to make up 16% of Gross Final Energy Consumption by 2020. However, in 2017 the figure stood at 10.6%, up from 9.2% in 2016, and Ireland is unlikely to meet its target.
According to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SAIE), the country faces a challenge in reducing reliance on fossil fuels for transport, heating and electricity production, with over 90% of all energy used in 2017 coming from fossil fuels.
In its European Semester Country Report for Ireland 2019, the European Commission observed that Ireland has so far failed to decouple its economic growth from the emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants.
The report warns that this raises health, climate and environmental concerns and means that Ireland may miss opportunities linked to the EU’s ambitious decarbonisation objectives.
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 high emissions from agriculture, increasing emissions from transport and the restricted rollout of renewable energy sources.
The Semester Report points out that while Ireland has defined a vision for a low-carbon economy, it has yet to fully spell out a pathway towards a decarbonised and sustainable future.
The report also highlights that concrete actions programmed or budgeted for, fall far short of putting Ireland on a path to achieving the 2030 climate targets.
The Irish Government is now working on a climate disruption plan to identify new measures to address the issue.
The stimulation of renewable energy expansion through the 2030 EU Framework for Climate and Energy will be beneficial to Ireland, as renewables supply potential 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 the 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), a terminal and connecting gas pipeline in Shannon and at least one new energy interconnection to the UK.
The European Commission has been instrumental in encouraging Ireland to take action to protect Irish peat bog habitats,
Ireland is now 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.
Irish projects received over €14.2 million in funding under LIFE 2007-13 and almost €11.5 million during the first half of the current programme.
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.
The €5.4 million Living Bog project that aims to bring 12 of Ireland’s unique raised bogs in seven counties across the midlands back to life is another initiative being part funded through LIFE.
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, that 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 Environmental Implementation Review (EIR) is a series of biannual reports that detail the challenges and successes of each Member State in the implementation of EU environmental law and policy.
The 2017 review for Ireland identifies the country’s environmental challenges, successes and opportunities, some of which are highlighted below.
AIR QUALITY: The European Commission provides practical help to improve air quality in Europe. Ireland is developing a National Clean Air Strategy that will provide a policy framework consistent with EU and international priorities. The 2017 EIR report stated that while there were no reports of EU air quality standards being exceeded in Ireland, it’s estimated that the health-related external costs from air pollution in Ireland are above €2 billion a year.
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.
The European Commission supports Member States in implementing EU waste legislation. A revised waste legislative framework entered into force in July 2018 and it sets ambitious but achievable targets including reusing and recycling 55% of municipal waste by 2025.
WATER QUALITY: The Water Framework Directive is the European Union’s tool for protecting our rivers, lakes and beaches. The 2017 EIR report for Ireland identified maintaining the important investments required for water services as a challenge, given the urgent need to invest in water infrastructure. However, Ireland performs well when it comes to drinking and bathing water.
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.
Ireland has to complete its Natura 2000 designation process and put in place clearly defined conservation objectives and the necessary conservation measures for the sites.
CLIMATE CHANGE: The European Commission has adopted a strategic long-term vision for a climate neutral economy by 2050. Ireland’s draft National Climate and Energy Plan takes into account the EU long term strategy.