Country profile (Ireland)
What distinguishes the country?
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, Heritage and Local Government (DEHLG) has primary responsibility for environmental policy. In some areas, such as in climate change, responsibility rests across a number of departments including the DEHLG, 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 more mountainous areas.
What have been the major societal developments?
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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 (63.7 persons/km2).
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 1996-2006. The population is still increasing and by 2009 it was estimated at almost 4.5 million. The population has become increasingly urbanised over recent decades with urban dwellers now constituting over 60 per cent.
Employment and GDP
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 there was a drop in GDP/capita in 2008. There has been a sharp rise in unemployment from 5.7 per cent in 2008 to 12 per cent in 2009. This has particularly impacted on the construction sector.
What are the main drivers of environmental pressures?
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Total Primary Energy Requirement by Fuel Type
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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.
In the ten years between 1996 and 2006 there was a housing boom with the number of dwelling units built increasing steadily from an annual average of 23,000 to a peak of over 93,000. There has been a subsequent severe decline in the property market. Irish housing stock predominantly comprises detached houses that have a proportionately larger environmental footprint than semi-detached, terraced or apartment housing. Moreover, there is a tradition of dispersed housing across the landscape, which has major implications for environmental service provision, transport and land use change.
Transport emissions of greenhouse gases in Ireland increased by 176 per cent between 1990 and 2008. The dispersed nature of housing development, the spread of conurbations around the major cities and towns, and the reliance on the car are major contributory factors. With limited viable options for sustainable transport, especially in rural areas, greenhouse gas emissions from transport will continue to be a difficult problem to address.
Car ownership has changed dramatically in the last decade, with the proportion of households with multiple vehicles increasing substantially. There has been a continuing trend to purchase new cars with larger engine sizes. In 2009, the number of new cars licensed declined very significantly to 37 per cent of the 2008 figure.
The recent dramatic growth in population has put significant pressure on the provision of environmental services during the period. For instance, municipal waste generation increased from 1.8 million tonnes in 1995 to 3.2 million tonnes in 2008. However, the recovery rate increased from 8 per cent in 1995 to 37.5 per cent in 2008.
Demand for wastewater treatment also increased substantially and significant investment has been made in treatment capacity. For example, in 2000-01 only 29 per cent of wastewater arising received secondary treatment, which had risen to 92 per cent by 2007-08. The dispersed nature of settlement poses a particular challenge for the provision of affordable environmental services.
By European standards, Ireland has experienced a relatively high rate of land use change in the last decade. While agriculture is the main land use, ‘artificial’ land (i.e. lands used for residential, industrial, commercial purposes, etc) has increased by 14.5 per cent in the period 2000 to 2006. Land use change is predominantly from agricultural uses into residential and to a lesser extent commercial development.
Having a very strong farming background, agriculture in Ireland now only accounts for around 3 per cent of GDP, compared to 7 per cent in 1995. In common with trends in all EU Member States, farm numbers declined continuously over recent decades. The average annual decline over the last 10 years was 1.7 per cent, but the decline in smaller farms has been more rapid.
Over 60 per cent of the land in Ireland is devoted to agricultural activities, with an additional 10 per cent currently devoted to forestry. 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 have declined in recent years. There has been significant destocking of commonages which were being heavily overgrazed.
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food operates a number of measures of potential benefit for the environment. These measures include the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (REPS), the Farm Waste Management Scheme and the Organic Farming Scheme. A new Agri-Environment Options Scheme was introduced in 2010. Nutrient enrichment from diffuse agricultural pollution is one of the main sources of water pollution, however, the implementation of the Nitrates Action Programme under the Nitrates Directive aims at strengthening the protection of waters against pollution from agricultural sources.
Over the period 1990-2008 Ireland’s total annual primary energy requirement grew in absolute terms by 72 per cent (average annual growth rate of 3.1 per cent). Fossil fuels accounted for 96 per cent of all energy used in Ireland in 2008. Oil is by far the dominant energy source but natural gas use has also been increasing. Since 1990 renewable energy use has been increasing but it still only accounted for 3.6 per cent of the total primary energy requirement in 2008.
The increase in Ireland’s energy requirement is due to growth in energy consumption for heating, electricity and particularly for transport. This has implications for Ireland meeting its international greenhouse gas emissions targets.
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. The tourism and hospitality sector accounts for 12% of employment and in 2008 attracted an estimated 7.8 million overseas tourist visitors. 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.
What are the foreseen developments?
Ireland has made progress in a number of important respects 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 concluded that the quality of Ireland’s environment is relatively good but that there are some key environmental challenges facing Ireland resulting from the major economic, social and demographic changes that have occurred in recent years. Four priority challenges for the environment are
- Limiting and adapting to climate
- Reversing environmental degradation – particularly in relation to water pollution and the conservation of natural habitats and species
- Mainstreaming environmental considerations
- Complying with environmental legislation and agreements.
Projections for environmental pressures, including waste generation and emissions to air are currently being developed for Ireland. This projections research presents a picture of what the future might look like for the environment under different scenarios for societal behaviours and environmental policies. It thereby helps indentify pressure points on the environment and highlights areas for action. For example:
- Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions from the non EU-ETS sector, under the most favourable scenario, will exceed the proposed target for 2020
- Both municipal and biodegradable municipal waste generation are projected to increase over the next two decades. Without significant additional investment in waste treatment infrastructure, landfill directive targets for the diversion of waste from landfill are in danger of being missed
- Emissions of nitrogen oxides, currently well above the 2010 ceiling, are expected to remain high, mainly due to the continued growth in car transport.
There is a need for continued research to better understand these issues, and for behavioural change and technological development to help address them.
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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