Ireland: the land of forty shades of green, clear, clean bathing waters, silver sands and rolling hills to take in the freshest of air. Well, so we are led to believe, and most of us would agree that as an Island we live up to our environmentally-friendly and pure reputation.
But just exactly how do we compare with not only our European neighbours but also to the rest of the world and are we getting greener or greyer? In this feature on the Irish environment Journalist Ger Leddin, using a set of five benchmarks does a bit of digging to find out.
1. Global Warming, are we doing our bit to reduce it?
Scientists agree that there is a 95% probability that the current rise in global warming is the result of human activity. Most countries throughout the world are doing their best to reduce the number of greenhouse gases they produce.
But unfortunately, we here in Ireland had the third highest emissions of greenhouse gases per capita in the EU in 2015 at 13.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per capita.
Ireland’s emissions were 50% higher than the EU average of 8.8 tonnes. Ireland with a Co2 emissions rate of 13.2 tons of Co2 per capita is ranked at 19th place in Europe, and we fall a long way behind Sweden which emits 5.7.
The average global temperature on Earth has increased by about 0.8° Celsius since 1880. Two-thirds of the warming has occurred since 1975. But why should we care about one degree of warming? After all, the temperature fluctuates by many degrees every day.
Global warming is particularly crucial for us as of course, we are an island nation with a 3,171-kilometre coastline.
From 1900 to 2012 the average temperature on this island has also risen by nearly one degree. Basically, this means that sea-levels off our coast are also rising and if this trend continues at the present rate and is coupled with occasional storm surge events we could be looking at a loss of up to 1,000km2 of land in our coastal regions by the end of this century.
2. Bathing Water
We’ve all seen the promotional ads on TV, surfers riding the waves and red-haired children running in and out of the sea, fishermen casting into our lakes but how does our bathing water compare with the rest of Europe?
Unfortunately not very well if the truth is told; Ireland had the seventh worst bathing water quality in the EU in 2016 when 92.9% of sites were classified as complying with guide values (and therefore considered as being of sufficient water quality). The EU average compliance rate was 96.3% in 2016.
One year of note was 2012 when only 66.9% of Irish bathing water sites had a good quality of water, this can be explained by the exceptional rainwater run-off due to what was a very wet summer.
3. Drinking Water, how safe is it?
During 2017, 21,657 Irish people were affected by Boil-Notices for their drinking water, quite a lot really but it’s not as bad as it sounds, actually our drinking water standards are improving year by year. The above figure was a significant reduction from the 83,044 people affected by boil notices in 2016.
The EPA is charged with reporting on drinking water quality, and their 2017 report actually is quite encouraging and states that “microbiological compliance is 99.9%, chemical compliance is 99.6% and that half of all boil water notices issued in 2017 were short-term notices, in place for less than 30 days.”
It’s probably worth mentioning that the recently formed company Irish Water took over the management functions of the Public water supply from local authorities in 2015 and this reorganisation of supply does seem to be working.
4. The air that we breathe
You can rest easy when you take that walk out over the Wicklow Hills or wherever, because our air quality results are overall very favourable, having said that however if this were a school report card, it would read ” while Ireland has improved, it could try harder.”
Let’s have a look at one of our air quality environmental indicators for 2018.
One standard way to measure air quality is the presence of what are called Particular Matter these fine particles can come from various sources. They include power plants, motor vehicles, aeroplanes, residential wood burning, forest fires, agricultural burning, volcanic eruptions and dust storms.
Some are emitted directly into the air, while others are formed when gases and particles interact with one another in the atmosphere. Ireland’s emissions of particulate matter (PM2.5) have decreased by 53% from an average of 32,000 tonnes in 1990-1994 to 14,900 in 2016.
But even with those figures, we are not yet at the top of the class; in 2015, Ireland ranked the11th lowest among the EU Member States for emissions of PM2.5.
5. The Energy which we use
The push globally to achieve 100% renewable energy usage has been motivated by global warming and other ecological and economic concerns, at least 30 nations around the world already have renewable energy contributing more than 20% of energy supply. But how is Ireland performing in this regard?
In Ireland we used in and around 14.4 million tons of oil equivalent (TOE) during 2015; this was an increase from the 9.8 million tons used during 1994. Simply put, our energy consumption is rising year by year.
This in itself is natural in a growing economy, but as a nation, we fall far short of the rest of Europe in the use of renewable energy. In fact, we are the joint second lowest in the EU. Renewable energy accounted for only 3% of Ireland’s energy usage in 2015, in fact, we were only slightly better than Malta who had the lowest at 2%.
We are showing signs of improvement though; the amount of renewable energy production in Ireland has increased from an annual average of 168 kilotonnes of oil equivalent (ktoe) in 1994 to 1,028 ktoe in 2016.
So, in conclusion while we do have the advantage of living on a relatively clean land, swimming and drinking and fishing in relatively clean unpolluted water, we do need to knuckle down and put in a bit more effort if our report card is ever to read “Ireland did very well this year, keep up the good work.”