Q&A: How will the EU climate plan affect Ireland?

Fit for 55 package will lead to systemic changes in energy, transport and agriculture

The European Union’s “Fit for 55” package may sound like an attempt at being trendy in launching the latest gym regime. It does relate to lifestyle alright, but in a much more far-reaching way. And European consumers will have little chance to avoid its consequences; they are about to be coerced and prodded into embracing more sustainable ways of living.

This ranges across international travel, car selection, energy choice, fuel use, waste reduction and recycling. Fossil fuel hikes and carbon taxes on polluting behaviour will be increasingly painful as the demise of the petrol/diesel car with internal combustion engine looms.

Big carbon-emitting industries will be subjected to stricter caps on their emissions and those doing business will soon realise the demands of a circular economy will radically change the relationship between manufacturer and consumer.

This all stems from EU countries agreeing to reduce the bloc’s carbon emissions by 55 per cent (based on 1990 levels) by 2030, so the continent can achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. In particular, this arose from the European Green Deal agreed by member states, so there are few opt-out options, though hard negotiation on final detail now begins.


The deal required a massive overhaul of all EU directives and laws on climate and energy including a shake-up of Europe's emissions trading system (ETS), which was unveiled on Wednesday. The sting in the tail is that agreeing to decarbonise Europe comes with legally-binding requirements and targets on everything from retrofitting buildings to regulating land use.

Putting a carbon price on imports of a targeted selection of products to ensure ambitious climate action in Europe does not lead to "carbon leakage" elsewhere and tools to preserve and grow natural carbon sinks (where Ireland has a lot of opportunity because of its boglands) are among the big-ticket items.

Is halving EU emissions in nine years doable?

There is no doubt about the ambition as Europe attempts to become the first continent to decarbonise. Already many countries are reducing emissions significantly – though Ireland is not on a downward curve yet. It is more than matching that overall target, however, committing to a 51 per cent cut with a 2018 baseline.

But delivering on promises under the Paris Agreement is not happening with the pace needed to contain global temperature rise to within 1.5 degrees.

That is what prompted the Green Deal. The level of emission reductions was dictated by what climate science indicated was needed to avoid continuing acceleration of global warming caused by human activities – and irreversible impacts on the planet after 2030. In the meantime more extreme weather events, such as 2021’s summer heatwaves in the Northern hemisphere, are a hint of likely catastrophe in coming decades.

If this attempt to jump-start concerted EU action to halve emissions in less than a decade was implemented in full, there would be a reasonable chance of success. But it is fraught with political minefields.

The ghost of the gilets jaunes protests in France lingers; intense lobbying from long-established industries is inevitable which may water down the thrust of action. Rollout of a huge "climate action social fund" with €72.2 billion of funding to member states for the period 2025-2032 is an attempt to ease the burden – and to stave off unrest.

What sectors will see the biggest changes?

Unlike Ireland, where agriculture accounts for the biggest category of emissions at 33 per cent, transport is the big carbon polluter at EU level – so, understandably, that is where measures are most radical.

The Fit for 55 strategy will end the tax exemption for polluting jet fuel and replace it over time with green alternatives. The Commission envisages phasing out free CO2 permits by 2026 for airlines whose flights within Europe are covered by the scheme. That would force carriers to pay more for their emissions, a cost that may be passed on to consumers through higher fares.

Shipping has got off easy as there is continued backing for gas use, such as LNG (liquified natural gas).

Are there particular implications for car users?

The EU plan to sell 100 per cent emissions-free cars in 2035 will democratise electric vehicles in Europe, according to green group Transport & Environment. Cars are responsible for 12 per cent of all emissions in Europe and switching sales from polluting engines to fully electric is a crucial step to reaching net-zero emissions by mid-century.

A new carbon market for road fuels could, if approved, increase prices by about five cent a litre by 2028.

The bottom line, however, is clean cars will soon be affordable and easy to charge for millions of Europeans. In 2030 car-makers must reduce emissions of new cars by 55 per cent, rising to 100 per cent in 2035 with huge demands being placed on the auto industry.

Will it have particular implications for Ireland?

The package will have major impact in Ireland, especially on sectors finding it hardest to decarbonise, for example, transport and agriculture. Ambitious targets on electric vehicles and public transport are in place but poor public transport infrastructure and high dependency on the petrol/diesel vehicles especially in rural Ireland are particularly challenging.

In agriculture, major implications arise from land use targets arising from a commitment that by 2035, “the EU should aim to reach climate neutrality in the land use, forestry and agriculture sectors, including also agricultural non-CO2 emissions, such as those from fertiliser use and livestock”.

Furthermore, its sets an overall EU target for carbon removals by natural sinks, equivalent to 310 million tons of CO2 emissions by 2030. National targets will require member states to care for and expand their carbon sinks to meet this target. Ireland’s peatlands, if rewetted, can play a huge role here – but currently land in Ireland is a source of carbon rather than a store, primarily because of peat harvesting, intensive dairying and beef production.

Complementing this, the EU Forest Strategy aims to improve the quality, quantity and resilience of EU forests “while keeping harvesting and biomass use sustainable, preserving biodiversity, and setting out a plan to plant three billion trees across Europe by 2030”. Ireland’s performance in the sector is poor, with tree-planting targets way off target in a sector experiencing widespread planning difficulties.

The Government’s new Climate Bill acknowledging farmers’ role in providing “carbon removals” can provide a way to reward them for nature-based solutions if it is robust and transparent. But a detailed roadmap on reducing methane in agriculture over the next decade – and now up to 2035 – is urgently needed if climate neutrality is to be achieved in less than 15 years.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times