The quality of Ireland's environment is generally good though it has been under increasing pressure over the last decade. This has been as a result of economic changes, population growth and changing consumer patterns.
Ireland’s location on the western edge of the European continent is a very obvious driver of the diversity that sets the state apart from the continent of Europe. History and religion, climate and geology - which themselves have all been influenced by that physical location – have also played an important part in the development of the modern state. These factors have shaped political, economic and social development and the evolution of governance practices including environmental protection and management.
The Department of Environment, Community and Local Government (DECLG) has primary responsibility for environmental policy. In some areas, such as in climate change, responsibility rests across a number of departments including the DECLG, Department of Transport, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. The implementation of national policy often falls under the remit of local government (i.e., Local Authorities). Local Authorities have responsibility for local development and waste management planning, as well as the enforcement of environmental regulations in their functional area. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a statutory body responsible for protecting the environment, including the licensing and enforcement of activities with the potential to cause serious pollution.
Ireland’s geology is very diverse. Carboniferous limestone covers over half the country (particularly the central lowlands), old red sandstone dominates in the south and south-west and a great variety of metamorphic rocks occur in the north and west. Its saucer-like topography, with most of the montane areas concentrated near the coast, has created circumstances for the development of extensive freshwater wetlands. Inland waters comprise a much higher percentage of total area in Ireland compared to many other European countries. The extended, heavily indented coastline (over 7,000 km) and large expanse of territorial waters have contributed to its extraordinary marine diversity.
Ireland’s climate is influenced by the relatively warm waters of the Gulf Stream and by the prevailing south-western winds from the Atlantic. Consequently, Ireland does not suffer from the extremes of temperature experienced by many other countries at similar latitude. January and February are the coldest months with mean daily air temperatures between 4°C and 6°C. July and August are the warmest, with mean daily air temperatures between 15°C and 16°C. Average rainfall varies between about 800mm and 1200mm in low lying areas and up to 3,000mm in mountainous areas.
Following the catastrophe of the Great Famine in the mid-19th century, Ireland’s population experienced a steady decline due to emigration over the next century, falling to approximately 2.8 million (in the Republic). In the mid-20th century Ireland’s population started to grow but emigration was still prevalent until the early 1990’s. Even today Ireland remains relatively sparsely populated compared to most other European countries, with just over 60 persons per square kilometre compared to an average of 116 persons in the EU.
The demographics of the country have changed significantly over the past two decades, largely due to the economic boom known as the Celtic Tiger. There was significant inward migration, mainly from Eastern Europe, but also from Africa, Asia and elsewhere, and many Irish emigrants returned. There has also been a high natural population increase (births exceeding deaths).
These factors have led to Ireland’s population growth being five times the EU average over the ten-year period 2000-2010. The population is still increasing and by 2011 it was 4.5 million. However, the population has become increasingly urbanised over recent decades, with consequent pressures on the environment and on the provision of environmental services.
The numbers of people at work in Ireland remained relatively static from the 1970’s to the early 1990’s at just in excess of 1 million. In 1973, when Ireland joined the EEC, agriculture represented 24 per cent of those at work, industry 31 per cent and services 45 per cent. By 2008, total employment had almost doubled and agriculture represented 5 per cent of those at work, industry 25 per cent and services 70 per cent.
The increased population of working age, primarily due to strong inward migration, coupled with higher female participation rates contributed to the high labour force growth. Much of this increase in employment was in the services sector. Ireland’s GDP per capita rose dramatically since 1990. However, the economic recession is currently affecting the economy severely and GDP/capita has been falling since 2008. There has been a sharp rise in unemployment from 6.4 per cent in 2008 to 14.8 per cent in 2012.
Households and Consumption
The growth in population, incomes and economic activity, especially over the past decade, and the general trend towards increased urbanisation and suburbanisation has impacted on the environment in a variety of ways. These include changes in land use, increased traffic flows, and the need for increased infrastructure such as housing, water supply, sewerage and waste management facilities.
Between 2001 and 2010 the number of private households grew by 343,200 or 26.3 per cent. In that period the average size of private households fell from 2.95 persons to 2.71, continuing a long-term downward trend. This trend of an increasing number of households and smaller household size has a significant impact on consumption patterns, including the demand for energy and household goods. It is estimated that one-person households consume, on average, 38 per cent more products, generate 42 per cent more packaging waste and use 55 per cent more electricity per person than four-person households.
In the 10 years between 1996 and 2006 there was a remarkable increase in the number of house completions in Ireland, from an annual total of 33,000 in 1996 to a peak of over 93,000 in 2006. There has been a subsequent severe decline in the property market with a total of 10,500 houses completed in 2011.
The transport sector is a significant source of GHGs and emissions to air (e.g. NOX) in the State. Ireland remains heavily reliant on the car for its transport needs, with approximately three-quarters of all journeys made by private car. The increase in population around the major cities has resulted in increased traffic flows, and congestion and long-distance commuting have become features of Irish life.
Car ownership in Ireland has changed significantly in the past decade, with the proportion of households with multiple vehicles increasing substantially up to 2008. There was also a continuing trend to purchase new cars with larger engine sizes over this time period. In 2009 the number of new cars licensed declined significantly, in line with the economic downturn. Since the introduction of a new system of Vehicle Registration Tax in mid 2008, car purchasing patterns have shifted significantly towards lower-emissions vehicles and those with smaller engine sizes. This shift was also incentivised by a car scrappage scheme in 2010.
By European standards, Ireland has experienced a relatively high rate of land use change in the last decade. The main changes have been an increase in the amount of forested lands and artificial areas and a decrease in the total amount of agricultural land and peatland. The area under forestry has increased from 7 per cent to 11 per cent of national land cover during this period, primarily due to the planting of peatland and pasture lands with coniferous plantations. The area under artificial surfaces increased by approximately 15 per cent since 2000 to 2 per cent of national land cover. This mainly occurred on former agricultural lands on the periphery of existing urban areas, including the suburbanisation of villages close to larger towns and cities.
Agriculture remains the largest use of land in Ireland, with two-thirds of land devoted to it. Irish agriculture is predominantly extensive and grass-based. Tillage occupies some 10 per cent of the utilisable agricultural area, while most of the remainder is devoted to dairy cattle and sheep farming. Sheep numbers declined in recent years but increased again in 2011. There has been significant destocking of commonages which were being heavily overgrazed.
Food Harvest 2020 projects significant changes in production, particularly in the dairy sector, with a consequent increase in livestock. It is anticipated that much of this will be achieved through changing farm management and resource use with minimal changes to land cover.
At EU level, the EU CAP provides the main policy framework for development of the primary agriculture and agri-food industries to 2020 and thereafter. All farmers in receipt of direct payments from the EU are now subject to cross-compliance, which requires applicants to maintain their land in ‘good agricultural and environmental condition’ and to comply with statutory management requirements relating to the environment.
Ireland’s energy requirement increased significantly up to 2008 due to growth in energy consumption for transport, electricity and space heating. Fossil fuels accounted for 94 per cent of all energy required in Ireland in 2011 with oil being by far the most dominant energy source.
Since 1990 renewable energy use has increased, but it still accounted for just 6 per cent of the primary energy requirement in 2011. Ireland’s target under the EU Renewable Energy Directive is a 16 per cent share of gross final energy by 2020. Ireland has abundant renewable energy resources in wind, water, geothermal, solar and biomass. These sources offer sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels as well as reducing GHG emissions and our dependency on imported fuels. In 2011 Ireland imported 88 per cent of its energy needs.
Industry and Tourism
Historically Ireland has had a relatively small traditional manufacturing sector, as the industrial revolution was largely absent from the country. Over the past number of decades while the industrial sector has expanded it has evolved from being a sector largely engaged in traditional manufacturing to a sector largely driven by foreign direct investment particularly in pharmachem and electronics areas. More recently the manufacturing sector faced greater competitive pressure from abroad, whereas the services industry has expanded. Associated environmental pressures from the services sector tend to be related to energy consumption, waste and transport rather than emissions to air and water.
Ireland’s tourist industry is strongly tied to the quality of the environment and its marketing efforts centre on a clean, green image. Environmental infrastructure in many popular tourist destinations needs to be sufficient to deal with water, waste and traffic needs. These issues have considerable implications for the future sustainable development and growth of the industry. In 2012 an estimated 6.5 million overseas visitors came to Ireland. However, it should be noted that this figure is significantly down from a figure of 8 million in 2007.
Ireland has made progress in a number of important areas over recent years most notably in connection with certain emissions to air, waste management, and improvements in public transport. The most recent state of the environment assessment prepared by the EPA in 2012 concluded that the quality of Ireland’s environment is relatively good but that there are a number of significant environmental challenges facing the country over the coming years. The four key challenges identified are:
- Valuing and protecting our natural resources
- Building a low-carbon economy
- Implementing environmental legislation
- Putting our environment at the centre of decision making.
Meeting these environmental challenges will not be easy, nor is it only the responsibility of a few. Protecting and managing Ireland’s environment involves Government and public bodies; businesses and industry; as well as members of the public, working in partnership and taking action to avoid pollution and controlling environmental impacts. The reward for this effort is clear; a productive landscape, an attractive location for tourism and investment and most importantly, a clean healthy environment in which to live and prosper.
Environment and The Economy
In this section two specific issues are highlighted which are of particular relevance for Ireland and its environment. From the mid-1990s there have been major economic, social and demographic changes in Ireland. These changes have had significant implications for the Irish environment and how it is managed.
The recent downturn in the economy poses both challenges and opportunities. It is important that the economic recovery, when it comes, is based on sustainability. The natural environment is a critical national asset and its protection and enhancement benefit both economy and society, now and in the future.
Establishing a sustainable pattern of development is a key challenge for Ireland, and improving resource efficiency is a top priority to achieve this goal. Resource efficiency is also one of the key environmental priorities at EU level and is one of the seven flagship initiatives within the Europe 2020 Strategy. The challenge is to utilise resources in a sustainable manner throughout their lifecycle, avoiding over-exploitation and reducing the environmental and social impacts of their use.
Therefore issues of particular relevance for Ireland include resource efficiency and a capacity to model future environmental trends to support decision making.