‘We’re at a pivotal point’: The pandemic, the environment and a green recovery

19 Feb 2021

Image: © lovelyday12/Stock.adobe.com

If we build on the emissions reductions seen during Covid, with fewer commutes and less travel, it could help make the 2020s the ‘decade of climate action’.

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It has been almost a year since workers in Ireland and across the globe began working remotely because of Covid-19, and a lot has changed. Businesses have become decentralised and dispersed and tech tools like Zoom have been relied on like never before.

And with the shift away from workplace commutes and big office buildings, the pandemic has left its stamp on the environment, too. Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Sustainable Energy Authority Ireland (SEAI) said that Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped an estimated 5.9pc in 2020, largely driven by the impacts of Covid-19.

In the transport sector alone, they said, emissions were estimated at 2 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent lower than 2019, which is a drop of almost 17pc. Energy industry emissions dropped by an estimated 14pc, primarily due to using renewable energy instead of coal and peat in power generation.

Of course, people have been using more household energy while they stay at home and work remotely, and this caused an estimated uptick of 9pc in residential emissions. This was mainly driven by home heating, the agencies said.

A ‘pivotal point for our economy’ – and our planet

While this may be good news for the environment, a reduction in carbon emissions is expected to be temporary. The EPA and SEAI report compares these figures to those seen after the 2008 global financial crisis. But the economic rebound that will take place once the pandemic has passed will likely bring emissions back up to pre-Covid levels unless additional action is taken, the agencies warned.

“We are at a pivotal point for our economy, and the recovery steps we take now will shape Ireland for the next decade,” EPA director general Laura Burke said at the time of the report’s release. “While these early estimates show a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for 2020 as a result of Covid restrictions, this level of emission reductions, at a minimum, will be required annually.

“Ireland needs a green recovery to rebuild our economy, generate new jobs and respond to climate change. As we emerge from the global pandemic, a green stimulus and implementation of ambitious policies and measures can deliver Ireland’s current and future commitments to a climate-neutral economy and climate-resilient society by 2050.

“The emissions reductions in 2020 must be built on to achieve continual, substantial, year-on-year reductions, making the 2020s the decade of climate action.”

Taking climate action

Ireland’s Climate Action Bill, which is due before the Dáil, is looking to set out a framework by which Ireland can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 7pc per year for the next 10 years.

But is it possible to continue emissions reductions when we’re not forced to stay indoors and work from home? SEAI figures for 2019 suggest that we were heading in the right direction before the pandemic hit. That year saw the biggest reduction in CO2 emissions from fossil fuels for energy since 2011. These emissions were down 4.5pc, mostly driven by electricity generation, while heat and transport saw little improvement.

Transport is the sector that consumes the most fossil fuels and emits the most CO2 in Ireland, according to SEAI, and it showed no reduction in energy use in 2019 and a marginal reduction in CO2 emissions.

“The public health emergency has made us all think about what’s important. I hope people can find that same connection and resolve when it comes to taking climate action”

After Covid-19, many employers will likely adopt a hybrid model that combines in-office and remote working. Accenture has also predicted a long-term drop in business travel, due to the ubiquity of online and video meetings throughout the pandemic. And these actions could contribute to a decline in transport emissions.

Research last year from MaREI, the SFI research centre for marine and renewable energy, found that just 12 weeks into the pandemic, there was a “dramatic fall” in the use of airplanes, trains and automobiles in Ireland. If the drop in flight frequency alone continued at those levels for another 12 weeks, it said, the energy saved would be the equivalent of turning off the Moneypoint coal-fired power station for six months.

While this reduction in activity may not be sustainable in the long-term after the pandemic is passed, many have pointed to the possibility of a green recovery from Covid-19. Karen O’Regan, Accenture Ireland’s strategy lead, told Siliconrepublic.com this week that businesses will need to think about sustainability going forward as the attitudes of consumers and employees have shifted during the pandemic.

SEAI CEO William Walsh summed it up well when he commented on the agency’s joint report with EPA earlier this year. “Climate action has to be a national priority at all levels of society, led by Government and supported by businesses, communities and individuals all working together.

“The public health emergency has made us all think about what’s important. I hope that in time, people can find that same connection and resolve when it comes to taking climate action.”

Lisa Ardill was careers editor at Silicon Republic until June 2021