2022: Can Ireland go from climate laggard to leader?

We live in a good place, lets protect and improve it in 2022: Can Ireland move from climate laggard[i] to leader?

Watching #Don’tLookUp, reading Twitter and the science can be a relentlessly negative experience.  Working to engage businesses in #ClimateAction (as opposed to talking about it), I am often struck by how much progress Ireland has made since independence in 1922 and since joining the EU in the 1970’s, compared to our relatively slow progress in reducing our CO2 and green house gas (GHG) emissions. This blog post attempts to compare the two or at least put all the graphs in one place.

How good is Ireland?

On the UN Human Development Index Ireland is now No.2 globally; my lived experience was nowhere near as bad as The Commitments movie portrayed the 1980s, but it certainly wasn’t far off the experience for many, leading to huge emigration, so we have done well to slow emigration and improve our HDI score from <0.8 in 1990 to 0.955 now in 2020.  

Screen shot from UN HDI page click on link or image to see full dataset. http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/IRL#

HDI does not tell the whole story however good it is as a comparison.

Whilst there is always room for improvement to lift more people out of poverty via trade, the World and Ireland have reduced the proportion of our growing population living in extreme poverty.

Absolutely biodiversity and other aspects needed to support life are being hammered, but we should recognise progress where we can to encourage action on climate.

Ireland is no longer the poor country of the 1970’s or even the 1980’s, the success of the EU and our own hard work has won us a standard of living where we can compare ourselves to the best in Europe and no longer just the UK. These graphs from https://ourworldindata.org/extreme-poverty-in-brief

It is shocking for me to see where the UK is, we’d be better aiming to match Danish performance, but the narrative that things are getting worse is simply not true.


As #DontLookUp reminds us, we need to reduce our emissions (whilst continuing to grow towards 6m[iii] people) by 51% (the Climate Act passed 51% into Irish law on the 23rd July 2021) i.e. the need for action is urgent and it must result in absolute reductions in tonne of CO2e not just relative reductions in CO2e per capita (or per cow for that matter).

When looking at the progress we have made to date, we should take into account that the Republic of Ireland’s population has increased from just under 3m when I was born to over 5m in Mar’21(CSO) i.e. we have made massive progress in human development whilst almost doubling the population (66% increase), a tremendous achievement which I am sure the founders of this state would agree with.

Ireland’s population https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-plfp/populationandlabourforceprojections2017-2051/

Can we change?

Yes. We showed this during COVID19; we changed our behaviour in 2020 enough to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 6%[iv], largely from reductions in transport (mainly aviation and car use).

The challenge now is to reduce GHG/CO2e by 7% every year to 2030 (whilst growing our population, housing and employment).

Our history tells us we can do this, from one of the the poorest countries in Europe in the 1970s to one of the richest today (with all the problems that brings in CO2 emissions and housing – even though over 200,000 built units lie derelict and unused).

How will we change?

Too often we see well planned and consulted actions delayed by years of wrangling, from the judicial reviews of the Apple Datacentre in Athenry which would have added renewable generation to our grid, to the almost completely ignored regulatory delays in the roll-out of CNG stations for trucks (just 4 out of 14 planned now open after 7 years).

Politicians of all persuasions, unions and business all need to move faster; politicians cannot promote a just transition on one hand whilst delaying and decrying renewables developments such as on- and off-shore wind on the other.

The key lesson from the Celtic Tiger of the 1990s for today (for me) is speed; we need to use digitalisation to accelerate planning and consultation, regulators need to work in parallel not in sequence. (Note Local Government Management Association the LGMA are already on the Planning digitalisation http://uat.lgma.ie/en/what-we-do/current-projects/eplanning/ )

Money is available for investment, but many changes such as improving energy efficiency pay for themselves quickly and go directly to your bottom line. Since 2006, my own credo is “The greenest, most profitable energy, is the energy you do not use” i.e. put energy efficiency first, investment in renewables can follow (though with our planning process we may need to do both simultaneously).

Progress to date

This superb summary from Paul Deane at UCC shows the progress EU member states including Ireland have made; “Since 1990 the EU27 has reduced Greenhouse Gas emissions by 25%, increased GDP by 60% while overall energy consumption remained the same. Bubble Graph shows how individual Member States contributed with relative changes in GDP/Energy/Emissions from 1990.”

Please click on this link if the animation does not show up above https://www.linkedin.com/posts/thinkingenergy_cop26glasgow-activity-6860905211133800448-1wqO

In other words, economic and societal progress go hand in hand with Climate Action, there will be no or only very slow progress in a country 66% reliant on imported fossil fuels as we are now.

TL:DR – Progress to 2005 date in a slide

Finally this 28 OCT, 2021 article by UCC’s Brian Ó Gallachóir explains and summarises the sources of our progress to date https://www.irishexaminer.com/opinion/commentanalysis/arid-40731510.html Brian also posted a summary on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6859561418027520000/ ) which shows the progress by sector in one neat graphic Note baseline is 2005 for this graphic; climate act is -51% GHG to 2030 vs 2018 or -7% per year.

28 OCT, 2021 graphic by UCC’s Brian Ó Gallachóir explains and summarises our progress to date

Postscript: Reading this back I can see some will be sceptical about the 18% reduction so here’s the CO2 emissions data from the EPA https://www.epa.ie/publications/monitoring–assessment/climate-change/air-emissions/irelands-provisional-greenhouse-gas-emissions-1990-2020.php

Base / eventYearkilo tonne CO2e
Rio Earth Summit baseline 199054,400
EU Energy Efficiency Directive baseline200570,266
Latest EPA figures (2020) 202057,699
2020 – 200512,567
Difference 18%
Table to explain the 18% reduction 2005 to 2020; vs 1990 our emissions have increased by 3,298kt CO2e or 6%. By 2030 we need to be emitting no more than 31,168kt CO2e or half our 2018 emissions of 62,337kt CO2e.

Links and sources

[i] 31st December 2018 “Ireland is a laggard on climate, says Varadkar” as Taoiseach. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ireland-a-laggard-on-climate-says-taoiseach-nfr0wtvsb

[ii] Twitter / Hurler on the ditch: “A person who offers unsolicited criticism or advice about something in which they are not an active participant. Taken from the sport of hurling, a player of which is a hurler. Primarily heard in Ireland” – https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/hurler+on+the+ditch

[iii] 6m is mid range projection from CSO Population and Labour Force Projections 2017 – 2051 https://www.cso.ie/en/releasesandpublications/ep/p-plfp/populationandlabourforceprojections2017-2051/populationprojectionsresults/

[iv] SEAI https://www.seai.ie/data-and-insights/seai-statistics/key-publications/energy-in-ireland/   

Findings from our key energy sectors:


  • There were significant restrictions on personal mobility during 2020 which had direct effects on transport energy use, especially on international aviation and private cars.
  • Total transport energy use was down by over a quarter (-26%).
  • The largest reduction in transport energy use was the two-thirds drop in jet kerosene use for aviation (64.3%).
  • Consumption of road diesel and petrol were down 13.6% and 25.9%, respectively.


  • Energy used for heat increased by 3.2% in 2020.
  • This was mostly due to an 7.4% increase in oil use for heat. In contrast gas use for heat declined by 0.6%.
  • CO2 emissions from heating increased by 2.6% or 0.4 million tonnes.
  • CO2 emissions from residential heating increased by 9.1% or 0.6 million tonnes and the sector was responsible for 53% of CO2 emissions from heating.


  • Peat used for electricity generation fell by 51%.
  • 42% of all electricity generated in 2020 came from renewable sources.
  • 86% of all renewable electricity came from wind, with the remaining 14% evenly split across hydroelectricity and bioenergy sources.
  • Ireland had a total installed wind capacity of 4.3 GW at the end of 2020 – an increase of 180 MW on 2019.
  • There has been a strong reduction in the CO2 intensity of electricity generation, especially after 2016, with intensity falling below 300 gCO2/kWh for the first time in 2020. It is now less than half of its 2005 value.

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