Overall quality of Ireland’s environment is not what it should be, and the outlook is not optimistic unless we accelerate action – EPA

  • The outlook for Ireland’s environment is not optimistic unless we accelerate the implementation of solutions across all sectors and society.
  • Climate and biodiversity are two of the key challenges we need to address.
  • An investment in the environment is also an investment in our health.
  • Environmental indicators are going in the wrong direction across many areas.
  • A national Environmental Policy Position will provide clarity on our ambition and commitment to live up to the image of a Clean Green Island.

Launching the EPA seventh State of the Environment Report today, Laura Burke, EPA Director General, said,

“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.”

Ireland’s Environment: An Integrated Assessment 2020 reveals that enduring and systemic challenges are putting pressure on the environment and remain to be solved. These cut across different environmental topics such as climate, air, soil, water, biodiversity and waste, and across organisations and sectors, business and all levels of society.

Specific examples include:

  • Almost ninety per cent of our energy is generated from fossil fuels giving rise to greenhouse gases;
  • air quality in some urban areas doesn’t meet WHO standards;
  • nature and habitats are being damaged (85% of EU listed habitats are in unfavourable condition);
  • wetland bird species, such as curlew, are under threat as a breeding species;
  • raw sewage is being discharged to water from 35 towns and villages;
  • even more stark is the dramatic reduction in the number of Ireland’s most pristine rivers, which have fallen from over 500 sites to only 20 sites in 30 years;
  • nutrient concentrations in rivers and nutrient inputs to the marine environment are increasing;
  • more than one million tonnes of food waste is generated each year in Ireland,
  • littering remains a problem, resulting in thousands of complaints annually to local authorities.

A key message from Ireland’s Environment: An Integrated Assessment 2020 is that the absence of an overarching national environmental policy position is negatively impacting on success across multiple environment-related plans and policies: the sum of the parts does not make up a coherent whole.

EPA Director, General Laura Burke said,

“Environmental issues and challenges such as climate change, air quality, water quality and biodiversity cannot be looked at in isolation, as they are complex, interconnected and need to be tackled in an integrated way. Now is the time for an overarching environmental policy position for Ireland – to be clear on our ambition to protect Ireland’s environment in the short, medium and long-term and on our commitment to live up to the image of a Clean Green Island. We need to see a decade of action in the 2020s. A policy position would provide a national vision that all government departments, agencies, businesses, communities and individuals can sign up to, to play their part in protecting our environment.

“In addition to such a policy position, our report also calls for better implementation and delivery of existing legislation and policies. Many plans and programmes are already in place which, if fully implemented, would go a long way towards resolving persistent environmental issues. Full implementation of, and compliance with, legislation is a must to protect the environment.”

In relation to greenhouse gas emissions, the report’s data confirms Ireland’s underachievement in curbing emissions and meeting stated targets. It shows that the longer we delay, the more difficult it will become to turn things around to meet our obligations. It is more than meeting targets, the real goal for Ireland in the face of climate disruption is to have a resilient and stable society and economy, one that is carbon neutral through its own efforts and natural attributes.

The report has also found that nature and wild places in Ireland are under unprecedented pressure and need to be better safeguarded, both locally and in protected areas. Our action to protect nature needs to be more ambitious. We need to identify the pathway to transformative change for nature protection in Ireland and reverse wider current trends in biodiversity and habitat loss.
Very topically, the EPA report highlights people’s greater awareness about the positive benefits of a clean environment for health and wellbeing. The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has shown people the importance of the natural environment in their local areas.

Dr Micheal Lehane, Director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Assessment, said:

“Ireland is already losing much of what is important in its environment. Unspoilt areas are being squeezed out and we are losing our pristine waters and the habitats that provide vital spaces for biodiversity.  Now, more than ever, Ireland’s green and blue spaces, which include urban parks, coasts, lakes, rivers, forest and bogs, are essential components of our health infrastructure. These allow people to get out in nature and away from everyday stresses, to the benefit of health and wellbeing and they need to be clean and protected. An investment in the environment is also an investment in our health.”

This comprehensive State of the Environment Report includes chapters on industry, transport, agriculture, air and water quality, nature and health and is available to download from the EPA website.

Additional info

This Report provides the public, policymakers, non-governmental organisations, community groups, businesses and others with the evidence base to help them make informed decisions about what they can do to help protect and improve our environment. The Report also identifies what needs to be done in the next decade for a cleaner, greener environment.

The Report, in calling for this national environmental policy, states that such a statement could set out the vision and ambition for protecting Ireland’s environment for the short, medium and long term.  It could articulate how the legacy of a protected environment for future generations to enjoy could be achieved, as well as emphasising the importance of a clean, safe and protected environment for our health and wellbeing.

The key messages from the 2020 state of environment report are as follows:

We Need Vision and Implementation to Protect Ireland’s Environment and our Health and Wellbeing

SOE 1: Environmental Policy Position A national policy position for Ireland’s environment.

SOE 2: Full implementation Full implementation of existing environmental legislation and a review of the governance around the coordination on environmental protection across public bodies.

SOE 3: Health and Wellbeing Protecting the Environment is an Investment in Our Health and Wellbeing.

Step Up to Protect the Environment Around Us as it is Under Increasing Threat

SOE 4: Climate Systemic change is required for Ireland to become the climate-neutral and climate-resilient society and economy that it aspires to be.

SOE 5: Air Quality Adoption of measures to meet the World Health Organization air quality guideline values should be the target to aim for in the Clean Air Strategy.

SOE 6: Nature Safeguard nature and wild places as a national priority and to leave a legacy for future generations.

SOE 7: Water Quality Improve the water environment and tackle water pollution locally at a water catchment level.

SOE 8: Marine Reduce the human-induced pressures on the marine environment.

System Change – Delivery on Sectoral and Societal Outcomes Needs to be Accelerated

SOE 9: Clean Energy Ireland needs to move rapidly away from the extensive use of fossil fuels to the use of clean energy systems. SOE

SOE 10: Environmentally-sustainable Agriculture An agriculture and food sector that demonstrates validated performance around producing food with a low environmental footprint.

SOE 11: Water Services Drinking water and wastewater infrastructure must meet the needs of our society.

SOE 12: Circular Economy Move to a less wasteful and circular economy where the priority is waste prevention, reuse, repair and recycling.

SOE 13: Land Use Promote integrated land-mapping approaches to support decision-making on sustainable land use.

The report has also recommended that any post-COVID-19 stimulus package for economic recovery should to be developed through a ‘green investment’ lens. This can yield substantial economic returns and avoid spend that locks Ireland into carbon-intensive and otherwise unsustainable consumption and production patterns.

Actions for a Cleaner Greener Environment

Over the next decade, the challenges facing us are to:

  • Halt any further deterioration in our natural environment while supporting our economy and accommodating our growing population.
  • Accelerate action to decarbonise and green our economy and society, so achieving climate neutrality by 2050.
  • Protect ourselves against the inevitable consequences of climate disruption.
  • Start restoring the precious habitats and water bodies that we have lost.
  • Leave space for nature as part of a new approach to biodiversity protection.
  • Designate more of our marine area as protected areas.
  • Protect air quality by switching to cleaner fuels and energy for transport and heating homes.
  • Massively reduce our annual one million tonnes of food waste.
  • Foster more sustainable agricultural production and land-use systems and management.
  • Invest in essential water services infrastructure that protects drinking water supplies and eliminates discharges of raw sewage.
  • Achieve greater efficiency in our production and consumption activities when using raw materials.
  • Secure the improvements in our natural environment that we have made through regulation and investment.
  • Integrate measures to protect against radon into our built environment.
  • Leverage a growing public engagement with environmental issues.
  • Act on the highlights identified in this report. Covering thematic, sectoral and integrated areas, these highlights are identified at the end of each chapter and they outline the scale of the challenges to be tackled. These key highlights are also collated in a table at the end of the report.

Recent successes: While overall many of the national environmental indicators are going in the wrong direction this does mask good actions at local level in many areas. There are notable positives too in the report that point towards what can be achieved, and projects that need more widespread uptake across the country. Landfill operation has improved dramatically; Integrated industrial regulation is highly successful; Environmental information is openly available to all; the plastic bag levy has altered behaviours and reduced litter; we have a well-funded and active environmental research programme; the integrity and monitoring of drinking water supplies has improved; national monitoring programmes for air and water have been greatly enhanced;  conservation projects for habitats and endangered species are taking place;  and we are consistently amongst the top performing EU states for reporting on environmental data.

State of environment report series: Published every four years this report, in common with the previous six reports, provides an overview of the current state of Ireland’s environment.  The EPA is required by legislation to periodically report on an integrated assessment of Ireland’s natural environment. The EPA’s evidence capability comprising its expertise, experience, data, research and technologies, together inform and assure this assessment.  We have also engaged with, and benefited from the input of, key national agencies with core knowledge and data relevant to sections in this report.

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