How have Ireland’s pollution levels changed as a result of Covid-19?

19 May 2020

Ennistimon, Co Clare. Image: © Patryk Kosmider/

Although many people are now staying at home as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, air pollution has remained largely the same in some aspects.

Researchers from Science Foundation Ireland’s MaREI energy and marine research centre based at University College Cork (UCC) have collated available data on Ireland’s energy-related pollution levels during the Covid-19 pandemic to see whether there have been any noticeable changes.

In terms of air pollution, data from the Environmental Protection Agency showed levels of air pollution in Ireland from solid-fuel burning have not changed and are generally in line with the monthly average.

However, there has been a significant decrease of up to 50pc in concentrations of the greenhouse gas nitrogen oxide (NO2). This is in line with data from the European Environment Agency from locations across Europe as road traffic – and to a lesser extent power generation – has reduced substantially as many stay at home.

Transport accounts for approximately 40pc of Ireland’s energy consumption, with travelling to work and school accounting for more than one-third of the journeys taken by Irish people each year.

Since restrictions were put in place, private car activity has dropped by more than 85pc, according to the research. Based on 12 weeks of restrictions and the presumption of another 12 weeks of partial measures, the researchers estimated that Ireland could see a 1.5m tonne reduction in CO2.

Emissions caused by air travel have also been significantly affected, with 90pc of flights being cancelled since restrictions commenced. Using the same assumption of a 24-week restriction period, the estimate suggests a 1m tonne CO2 reduction, which is equivalent to switching off Moneypoint coal-fired power station for six months.

And with Dart and Intercity train services operating at between 45pc and 65pc of their normal schedules, 12 weeks of restricted service operating at 55pc would see a reduction of 22,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

MaREI infographic showing pollution levels.

Click on the infographic above for a larger version. Image: MaREI/UCC

Mitigating the climate crisis

Despite many now staying indoors, demand for electricity across the country has decreased by between 5pc and 10pc over seasonal expectations since Covid-19 measures were introduced. However, the national grid is now experiencing weekend demand several days a week. Sources for electricity are coming from a mix of fossil fuels, renewables and imported electricity from the UK.

Speaking of the findings, UCC’s Dr James Glynn said Covid-19 measures have created a “natural experiment” for climate and energy researchers to observe how extreme demand scenarios can drive large-scale fossil fuel demand destruction and collapse oil market prices.

“By exploring the impact these restrictions are having on Ireland’s pollution levels, we are also seeking to understand feasible actions to mitigate climate change,” he said.

“We need to make long-term, equitable and sustainable changes to our lifestyles, to our economy and to our energy system. Climate change mitigation is a marathon event requiring rapid and sustained steady changes in how we consume energy.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic