Ireland’s stuttering climate performance brought into focus by IPCC report

‘Big implementation gap’ and lack of political will are main obstacles to rapid decarbonisation

The world is in the last-chance saloon as far as keeping global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees. The “final warning” came in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Rising emissions are pushing the Earth to the brink of irrevocable damage. The inevitable consequences of that can only be minimised by swift and drastic action this decade, according to the most authoritative assessment of climate science ever conducted – known as the synthesis report. The single most effective response is cutting emissions.

With 1.5 degrees likely to be exceeded in a matter of years, not decades, it changes everything. It immediately forces big carbon-emitting countries, including Ireland, into asking if their decarbonisation targets are ambitious enough – UN secretary general António Guterres says it warrants bringing 2050 net-zero targets back by a decade.

That shines an uncomfortable light on Ireland. We have undoubtedly one of the most ambitious climate plans of anywhere in the world. Yet our emissions are stubbornly stuck on a rising trajectory with no indication of when they will peak.


We are almost unique in Europe in that our land is a significant carbon emitter (due to drainage of peatlands and intensive agriculture) when it should be a big store of carbon

This is in contrast to most EU countries and many large economies of the developed world, which are already cutting their greenhouse gases.

In contrast, Ireland is among countries with the highest per-capita emissions. We are almost unique in Europe in that our land is a significant carbon emitter (due to drainage of peatlands and intensive agriculture) when it should be a big store of carbon. Our particular problems are compounded by a dispersed population and continuing reliance on vast amounts of imported fossil fuels.

In such circumstances, you might expect to see transformation infused with urgency at various stages of progress across all sectors. It doesn’t feel like we are in the throes of “systems change” – the clarion call of climate campaigners. We are stuck in significant but small actions and have yet to decouple growth and emissions.

Energy analyst Prof Hannah Daly of MaREI in UCC says the power sector is the only one embarked on “rapid transformative change”, with a clear course away from fossil fuels towards 100 per cent renewables.

Scale-up of solar and wind backed by enhanced flexibility of the grid is happening – “it’s just about pace [of delivery]”, she adds. Specifically, the missing elements are ratcheting up solar (“on rooftops and in fields”) and getting the conditions right for offshore energy.

Daly senses we are at the early stage of transformation in transport through electrification while switching to a less car-centric Ireland, especially in cities and towns.

There are, however, obvious blockages, with sales of EVs far too slow, when she believes it would be possible to have 100 per cent EV sales within two to three years. Yet current reality is rising sales of fossil-fuelled SUVs and a lack of political will to take bold, necessary actions, including getting subsidies right and penalising petrol and diesel guzzlers.

The target of a 25 per cent cut in agriculture emissions by 2030, was hard-fought, she says “but is probably not enough. The largest sector [emissions wise] has the lowest target”, and in terms of overall sectoral targets “is not meeting national ambition”.

There is nonetheless increased recognition that farmers must be adequately rewarded for nature protection and supported in moving away from “high-carbon commodities”.

On buildings, Daly highlights a need to get to zero carbon as soon as possible, avoiding easier to retrofit modern buildings and addressing the more challenging areas such as older homes, especially one-off houses in rural areas, that are heavily reliant on fossil fuels, and rented housing stock that needs to be much more energy efficient.

One issue that she believes is not getting sufficient attention is cement production, which is core to the economy and will require government intervention with subsidisation of new technologies to decarbonise efficiently and remain competitive.

Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan has repeatedly stressed the robustness of the Government’s 2023 climate action plan, which “sets out our response – as a country – to the climate crisis”.

It implements legally binding carbon budgets and those sectoral emissions ceilings. “It sets out a roadmap for systemic change to reach our national climate objectives,” he insisted this week.

On the report’s conclusion that “the time to act is now”, Ryan said: “This Government is doing so; passing one of the most ambitious climate laws in the world and mobilising the public and private sectors to deliver the emissions reductions required.” It also sets out how to accelerate needed actions by “putting climate solutions at the centre of Ireland’s social and economic development”.

In attempting to force down Ireland’s emissions curve, it should be acknowledged some big levers will not come into play until the second half of the decade, notably big public transport projects and offshore wind. Meanwhile, an extensive programme of rewetting bogs is being scaled up, which will in time ensure big emissions reductions and a biodiversity boost.

The biggest block to progress is the absence of sufficient political buy-in for what’s required combined with “a big implementation gap”, says Daly.

Climate scientist Prof Peter Thorne, a lead author on the Synthesis report, echoed similar concerns after its release. He said this required nothing less than full implementation of the climate plan and plugging gaps in sectoral targets – notably on land use and land use change. It also required an effective planning regime to put in place what was needed in a timely way.

Uncertainty over delivery of significant infrastructure in building a sustainable Ireland, including wind and solar at scale in the appropriate locations, has become the biggest obstacle to building momentum towards sustained reductions of our greenhouse gases.

Marie Donnelly, chairwoman of the Climate Change Advisory Council, urges the acceleration of existing and planned actions for Ireland to achieve its legally binding targets “in full and on time”.

“There is an urgent need to decarbonise our economy and society through climate change mitigation while taking account of impacts on the economy, society and environment while ensuring a just transition. Every reduction in emissions in Ireland will make a difference,” she says.

The EPA is leading development of Ireland’s first “climate change assessment” based on scientific research and systematic observations on the ground. It will published later this year and “build on and localise information from this Synthesis report” and landmark reports that emerged from the IPCC’s global assessment cycle known as AR6.

In addition, there will soon be a clear indication of the extent to which we are adhering to the 2021-2025 carbon budget.

This will provide a definitive verdict on the Government’s climate performance and there will be no place to hide for sectors that are failing to deliver on their emissions obligations.