Ireland doesn’t live up to ‘green’ image

DUBLIN — Ireland dumps raw sewage and agricultural pollutants into its waters and is falling short of its public commitments to combat climate change, the Irish Environmental Protection Agency said on Wednesday.

In a 460-page study, the EPA documents Ireland’s sweeping failure to deliver on existing environmental commitments. The European Commission currently is investigating Ireland for 36 violations of EU directives on protecting habitats, water and air quality.

Behind the scenes, the government of Prime Minister Micheál Martin is fine-tuning what it hopes will be a Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill with teeth. Martin’s five-month-old coalition depends on support from the Green Party to survive.

But the EPA’s director general, Laura Burke, said the report shows Ireland is better at enacting EU environmental directives than enforcing them.

“We sell ourselves as a country that’s clean and green. Unfortunately, the evidence and the data don’t stack up with this image,” Burke said.

“In Ireland we sign up to directives — water directives, climate directives, nature directives — but when it comes to implementation, the aspiration doesn’t necessarily meet the reality. We need to speed up, scale up and deliver,” she said.

The government bill seeks to lay the foundations for wider plans that will make Ireland carbon neutral by 2050. A core goal will be to cut greenhouse gas emissions — including from dairy and beef farms, the cornerstone of Ireland’s rural economy — by 7 percent annually.

But Burke noted that Ireland managed only a 4.5 percent cut last year, and even this could be statistically misleading. She said that 2018 was a particularly high year for Irish emissions, while 2019 featured the effective shutdown of the country’s only coal-fired power plant.

She said Ireland’s key “success story” is its relatively rapid adoption of renewable energy. Wind turbines today typically generate around a third of Irish electricity, natural gas-burning power plants the rest. Yet even here, environmental groups seek to slow or stop many onshore wind turbine projects, in part by arguing that construction disturbs carbon-trapping boglands.

The report — published every four years — found that: Nearly nine-tenths of Irish energy use still comes from fossil fuels; 85 percent of EU-listed natural habitats have fallen into “unfavourable condition”; Raw sewage is being dumped into water from 35 towns and villages; Only 20 of Ireland’s more than 3,000 rivers, streams and tributaries are unpolluted, down from about 500 such water bodies three decades ago.

“Ireland is already losing much of what is important in its environment,” said Micheál Lehane, director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Assessment. “Unspoilt areas are being squeezed out and we are losing our pristine waters and the habitats that provide vital spaces for biodiversity.”

The EPA found that 35 percent of Ireland’s greenhouse gases are emitted from farms, chiefly cattle, while 20 percent come from road traffic, 16 percent from energy generation and 11 percent from homes. Ireland exports beef to Europe, particularly Britain, and dairy goods worldwide.

The report found that increasing runoffs of nitrogen and phosphorus from farms, combined with the contamination of surface water from pesticides, was particularly endangering freshwater species.

More than half of sewage from urban areas, it found, “is discharged from plants that are not meeting the required European standard.” Each day, it said, untreated sewage from households with 78,000 residents flowed into estuaries and coastal waters.

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