EPA's State of the Environment Report an indictment of environmental failures | Fieldfisher
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EPA's State of the Environment Report an indictment of environmental failures

In its most recently published State of the Environment Report (November 2020), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that the quality of Ireland's environment is not where it should be, and that as a country, playing the green card is no longer something that can be justified.

The report, published every four years and the seventh in the series, provides an assessment of the overall quality of Ireland's environment, the pressures being placed on it and the societal responses to current and emerging environmental issues. The EPA has concluded that the sum of environmental shortcomings adds up to an indictment, with gross failures manifest in inaction, an inability to deliver on commitments and a lack of enforcement.

Proudly declaring Ireland's backing for global agreements such as the Paris Agreement and the European Green Deal is not enough if Ireland continues to fail to show urgency in addressing climate and biodiversity challenges. The government has conveyed a commitment to improving and protecting Ireland's natural environment with the 2019 Climate Action Plan and Project Ireland 2040, but absence of an overarching national environmental policy position is having a negative impact on achieving these goals.

In her foreword, Laura Burke, Director General of the EPA, states:

"the overall quality of Ireland’s environment is not what it should be, and the outlook is not optimistic unless we accelerate the implementation of solutions across all sectors and society".

Some of the key sections and findings in the report are outlined as follows:  

Climate Change
The report states that climate change is the defining challenge for this century, but that when it comes to tackling the causes of climate change the EPA grades the country’s current performance as “very poor”. Irish greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have increased by over 10% since 1990. Under existing measures, the EPA forecasts that Irish emissions will decrease by 6% over the next decade. Agriculture is the single largest contributor to GHG emissions at 35.3%, followed by transport, energy industries and the residential sector, at 20.3% 15.8% and 10.9%, respectively.

According to the EPA’s latest projections, only with the full implementation and adoption of the government’s Climate Action Plan can Ireland's long-term targets be met. The EPA states that public awareness, engagement and behavioural change are crucial to achieving the transition, and acknowledges that the transition must be just and equitable.

Air Quality
The report says air pollution is the “single largest environmental health risk in Europe”. However, Ireland has only made moderate progress in reducing the overall emissions to air from transport and energy sources. Meeting air quality targets will be heavily dependent on the implementation of national measures and targeting the causes of poor air quality in urban areas, which mainly relate to the emissions from the burning of solid fuels in our homes, transport emissions from vehicles in urban areas and ammonia emissions from agriculture.

Environmental Noise
The EPA acknowledges that there are positive and negative impacts from noise and that a healthy acoustic environment is more than simply the absence of unwanted sound. It is stated that long-term exposure to environmental noise from road traffic, railways, aircraft and industry contributes to health issues such as heart disease and sleep disturbance. The EPA suggests the implementation of Noise Action Plans as well as implementing a cross-sectoral approach across other areas such as air pollution by reducing traffic, increasing cycling and walking and other such measures.

Land and Soil
The EPA recognises the need to protect, manage and monitor Ireland's soil, land cover and landscape. The report makes some important statements on the need to regulate the peat industry, supporting further broadleaf forest planting, develop urban centres in a sustainable way and continue to improve our knowledge of soils in the context of agriculture.

The current assessment is very poor, with 85% of EU protected habitats having an unfavourable status. Transformative change is needed in order to meet the targets set out in the National Biodiversity Action Plan. Importantly the EPA finds that there is a clear gap between research, policy and policy implementation at all levels, stating that there is a large body of robust peer-reviewed scientific research exists about nature protection and conservation and Ireland needs to be better at incorporating the findings of this research into biodiversity policies at national and local levels.

Water Quality
The quality of Ireland’s surface water resources - rivers, lakes, estuaries and nearshore coastal waters – is under severe pressure due to human activities, with just over 50% in a satisfactory ecological condition. The number of pristine rivers has fallen from over 500 to just 20 over a 30-year period. Groundwater, which is the source of drinking water for around one-quarter of people in Ireland, is described as being of good quality in general. 

Environmentally sustainable improvements in agriculture, wastewater investment and better management of nutrients and other land use drivers are needed to alleviate pressures on Ireland's water resources.

The Marine Environment
Ireland’s marine waters are clean and reasonably healthy but not as biologically diverse and productive as they could be. The environmental status (from the Marine Strategy Frame Directive assessment) for Ireland indicates that, although five descriptors are fully compatible with Good Environmental Status, two others are considered to have achieved Good Environmental Status for the primary criteria assessed (marine litter and noise) while three are only partially compatible (biodiversity, commercial fish and shellfish and sea floor integrity). Information on Descriptor 4, food webs, is not sufficient to make an assessment. Overall, the assessment outlines the gaps in knowledge for some descriptors and the improvements required to bring them to Good Environmental Status.

The EPA suggests that the area covered by Marine Protected Areas needs to be expanded significantly to meet the international requirement to conserve 10 per cent of all coastal and marine areas, rising to 30 per cent in future targets under the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030.

Although the EPA notes that Ireland is in line to meet its legislative targets for waste collection, recovery and recycling, and diversion from landfill, significant issues have appeared in the four years covered by the report. Published in September, the government’s Waste Management Plan for a Circular Economy is welcomed, and places a stronger emphasis on waste prevention than previous policies. However, the report notes that meeting future targets for recycling and treatment could prove tricky, one issue being the sheer volume of waste our economy produces. This may require new levies on incinerators and on waste exports to ensure more recycling is carried out.

To address the shortcomings outlined in the report, the EPA has conveyed three key messages:
  • The need to establish a national environmental policy position
  • Full implementation of current environmental policies already in place
  • Establishing a greater link between the environment and health
The EPA notes that as Ireland emerges from the Covid-19 crisis and looks to stimulate economic recovery, it must be done through a "green investment" lens, with definitive steps being taken to avoid a lock-in, or return to, carbon-intensive and otherwise unsustainable behaviours and technologies that have been adopted to date.
The Report also contains key chapters on the environmental impacts of Industry, Transport, Agriculture, Health and Wellbeing, Performance, Policy and Innovation.
The full report is available here.
Wriiten  by Jonathan Moore and Dena Keane

Areas of Expertise

Planning and Environmental